Saturday, November 11, 2006

Claire and the Baby Tractor


Claire and her dad loved to take walks in the park. They loved the trees, the ducks, the water and the birds. One day they were walking in the park when it suddenly began to rain. They laughed and ran as fast as they could under a large tree to stay dry.

As they stood under the tree giggling and shaking the rain off, Claire noticed that they weren't alone. Next to them under the tree was a very tiny tractor, with very wet headlights.

"What's the matter, baby tractor?" Claire asked. "Why are you crying?"

The baby tractor looked up at Claire's dad and Claire could tell that the little tractor was feeling shy. She knew how scary grownups could seem sometimes. She bent close to the tractor so that it could whisper in her ear. "It's okay," Claire said. "You can tell me."

The tractor whispered to Claire that it was all alone. It had been playing in the trees and got lost from its family. Now they had gone home without it and it was all alone. At this the tractor began to cry again, even harder.

"Daddy!" Claire exclaimed. "This baby tractor is all by itself. We have to help it find its family."

Claire's dad knew from experience that once she had made up her mind about helping someone there was no sense arguing with her. He bent down on one knee in front of the tractor and Claire so they could figure out a plan. "Well," her dad said. "I know of a tractor store back in town. I'm sure they would know where this little guy's family is. We could drive back to town and ask them to help us."

Both Claire and the baby tractor smiled when he said this.

"There's only one problem," said Claire's dad. "If I'm driving our car there'll be nobody left to drive the tractor."

"Um, I can," Claire said, smiling and rolling her eyes.

"You?" her dad asked with a strange smile on his face. "You're five. Since when do you know how to drive?"

"I've been practicing!" Claire said. "At Granny and Grandpa's house. On my truck."

Claire's dad thought about this for a minute. It was true, Claire's toy truck and the little tractor were just about the same size. And if there's one thing he knew from experience it was that when Claire decided to learn how to do something she learned how to do it well.

"Well, okay, " he said. "We'll try it. I think there are enough dirt roads between here and town that we can make it back without taking the highway. But stay close behind me, keep your seatbelt buckled, and no complaining that I'm driving to slow."

"Yay," Claire said, laughing. Then she hopped right into the baby tractor and turned the ignition. It made a ROOM-ROOM sound and blinked its headlights. "You see, Daddy," she said. "It's feeling better already."

They waited until the rain stopped and when the sky seemed clear enough they headed out back to town. A park ranger at the gate had to blink a couple of times when he saw them pass through. "That's funny," he said to himself. "It looked for a minute like a little girl was driving that tractor. I think I'd better get my eyes checked."

The trip back to town was going along just fine. It turned out that all of Claire's practicing had paid off and she had become a pretty good driver. Her dad smiled with pride as he watched her in his rearview mirror. As for Claire, she was having the time of her life. This tractor, like many other tractors, had no roof or windows and she loved the feel of the wind on her face and in her hair as they went. Her and the baby tractor took turns singing their favorite songs they'd learned in school. Wow, Claire thought to herself. I can't wait until I'm old enough to drive a real car.

They had gone quite a ways when the tractor began to make a funny sound. SPUTTER, SPUTTER, SPUTTER. Looking in his mirror, Claire's dad could tell from her face that she was worried and he pulled over to see what was wrong.

"Um, Daddy," Claire whispered in his ear so the tractor couldn't hear them. "The question is, what's wrong with this tractor?"

Concerned, her dad looked the tractor over. He looked under its hood. Then under its carriage. They he looked at the tires. Finally, he looked at the instrument panel. "Well Claire," he said. "There's nothing wrong with the tractor. But it is almost out of gas."

Claire's dad was a little worried now. When they left for the park that morning he hadn't brought any extra money with them, just a couple of sack lunches and a loaf of bread to feed the ducks. After all, he had never expected they'd be helping a baby tractor find its family. How will we ever get the baby tractor back to its family now if we can't buy it any gas?, he thought. But before he could say anything to Claire about this he saw that she had pulled a white change purse out of her pocket. It was shaped like butterfly and had been a present from him on her last birthday. "Daddy," she said. "As you may or may not know, I've been saving up my allowance for something special. And now, I've decided I'd like to spend it on gas for this tractor."

"Claire, I had no idea you'd been saving that money all this time," her dad said. "We sure are lucky that you're so smart. And so generous."

So they drove a little ways up the road until they came to a gas station. The attendant at the station had to blink a few times when Claire, whose head didn't even come up to the top of the counter, reached up, handed him her money and said, "Put it all on pump one."

"I think I need a nap," he said to himself, rubbing his eyes.

With that problem solved, Claire, the baby tractor, and her dad set off once again back to town to find the tractor's family. But they weren't on the road for very long when the sky began to get cloudy again and the wind began to blow harder. Claire's dad was worried. It was surely going to storm soon, he thought, and there would be nothing to protect her from the rain. He pulled over.

"Claire," he said. "We've got a problem. It's going to rain any minute and that tractor has no roof. You'll be soaked!"

Claire smiled and looked at her dad with her look that seemed to say, are you kidding me? "Um, daddy, there's a bridge right over there," she said, pointing down the road. "We can hide under it to stay dry until the rain stops."

"Oh," her dad said. "I hadn't thought of that. Now that you mention it, that's a pretty good plan, Claire. Good thinking."

Claire shook her head and giggled. "You're silly, Daddy," she said.

Claire and her Daddy parked under the bridge and just as they did, it started to pour buckets. They waited there for a while as it rained and rained. "I'm hungry," her dad said. "I sure wish I had something to eat."

His stomach made a GRRRLLLLLL sound.

"Um, Daddy..." Claire said.

"Yes?" her dad replied.

"Our sack lunches..."

"Oh, right!" Claire's dad said, relieved and happy. "You know, sometimes I don't know what I'd do without you Claire Bear." And at that Claire and her dad tore into those sack lunches and ate three peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, a bag of crackers, an apple, two puddings, two juice boxes and a half a banana quicker than you could say "fifty fat fairies."

Just as they were licking their fingers and cleaning up from their lunch it seemed to get quieter. "Daddy," Claire said quietly. "Listen. It's stopped raining!"

"You're right," her dad said looking around. "It has, but we'd better hurry up if we want to make it back to town before dark."

They set out on the road, and Claire smiled again as the wind blew through her hair. The air seemed cleaner after the rain and her and the baby tractor thought of all the songs they had learned in school that had the word "rain" in them and sang each one again and again, without ever getting tired of them.

As they went, the sun began to set and the sky turned pink, then purple. Just when it seemed they would never make it back before sunset they saw lights and signs in the distance. They had finally made it back to town! Claire's dad led them past a grocery store, past more gas stations and past a coffee shop before pulling in to the parking lot of a large tractor store. There were rows and rows of tractors and Claire's dad started worried that they wouldn't be able to find the little tractor's family in all those lines. But almost as soon as they'd entered the parking lot the little tractor began to hop up and down with excitement. A group of tractors near the middle of the lot had recognized the baby tractor and were rushing out toward them. It was the baby tractor's family. They had found them!

Claire and her dad stood watching as the tractors laughed and took turns hugging the baby tractor again and again. This seemed to go on forever. "Pick me up," Claire said to her dad. He looked down at her, smiling. "Aren't you a little bit big for being held," he asked, and then bent down and scooped her up anyway. When the tractor family had finally loved on the tractor until they couldn't love on it anymore, they turned toward Claire's dad and said, "We can't thank you enough for bringing our precious baby back to us."

"Don't thank me, thank her," Claire's dad said, nodding toward Claire. "After all, it was her idea. Claire don't you want to---"

Claire's dad stopped when he saw that she had fallen asleep on his shoulder. "Well, I'll be sure to tell her how grateful you were," he said to the tractor family. He waved goodbye then walked back his car and buckled a sleeping Claire into her seat. He kissed her chubby cheek. "Sweet dreams Claire. You've earned them."

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Sexy Beast

I watched Sexy Beast again the other night. It was almost a totally different film than I remembered. What I remembered was stylized escapism, crisp and superficial, like a bank lobby or a copy of British GQ. But last night I now saw a parable, as if by Hemingway, about people who had survived their bad choices now living for love, idyllically baking away like lizards on rocks under a hot Spanish sun. A parable of people sneaking at joy - with guilt about their joy - and being haunted by a dark pursuer. In the special features commentary, Ben Kingsley says that if he had to sum up the film in one terse line, as mythology, it'd be: There once was a man who was happy; and so the gods sent to him the most unhappy man in the world.

In Sexy Beast this misery's missionary (Ben Kingsley) is portrayed as a man who is a manifestation of a demon. The demon beast itself, which appears in slurred edits, wears closely tailored pants and dress boots and is shirtless, with long limbs, patchy hair hanging from them like diseased bear fur, finger claws and a wretched rabbit's head. It's usually waving a firearm, and staggering deliriously, drunk with rage, toward its prey. The incarnation, as man, is only slightly less ominous, more composed by degrees, with bothered eyes and neatly pressed clothes. He comes on a mission to convince one of the happy people to leave paradise and return with him to hell. It's an impossible sell, which he will make anyway through sheer willpower, bullying - sometimes physically, but mostly in a different way: he intimidates through indecency. His jagged, berating nastiness and unpredictability are an open threat, leveraging the fact that he will always be angrier, always want confrontation more.

Watching this movie with new eyes, deep resonances caused a vibration. In my way, I've always felt pursued in my paradises. As a child it was as simple as the constant rub of "reality" against wistfulness. "Take this seriously, Daniel!" shouted while I lay in the outfield grass during a little league game, abandoning my post to cloud watch (corny as it sounds). Eventually a kid like this can develop habits and overgrowths of competency. A kid like this can learn to worry like everybody else, but it'll never look good on him. Seriousness won't suit him. Like people who hate confrontation and look raw-eyed and unhinged when they are pushed to confront, not because they're cowards, but because it's not in their nature and is a form of extremism for them. In this way, I've agreed to take the world literally and this literalness is deforming.

But the flakey kid who becomes an over-serious man can't shake the pursuer. He'll think, "I thought by accepting the world's worries it would leave me alone, in privacy, so I can sneak at dreaming." But the gods will hate his talent for concern and practicality even more and resent his duplicity. They'll know his mind drifts in private, like a balloon waiting to be let go; that he disappears between a pair of headphones or out open windows, and punish him for these excursions. They'll send him the most unhappy sexy beast in the world.

There's a biography of Jeff Buckley and his father Tim Buckley, which contrasts the stories of their lives in alternating chapters. The men actually never knew each other but lived nearly the same 30 odd years of failure, twin lives of coincidental ruin. More aware, Jeff often talked of his dark pursuer and of his cursed blood. His Demon John. A generational curse is a thing which meaning can't be made about. There's no knowing who the gods will choose to thwart, or why. About eight years ago, I asked my preacher dad (a mystic with strict parameters for his superstition) if he ever thought there was a curse in our family. He surprised me by not being surprised. And then he changed the subject.

Jeff Buckley's demon John makes me think of Sal Paradise in On the Road, and his shadowy Shroud which, in nightmares, hunted him across the continent. The Shroud had an earthly form: Dean Moriarty, the hipster imp who inspired Paradise and corrupted his mind with wild ideas.

I want to understand everything (so I can control it). Even my dark pursuer. I can put myself in the demon's place. It's not that hard. In myths, vampires lust after the unperverted mortals with a naked will to corrupt. The ones deprived of innocence, deformed by hyper-awareness, envy the purity of the oblivious. Lucifer's being was forever altered by information. Possessed with the energy of a fuller truth, what choice was there but to cleanse the universe of its unaware, of its minds not yet blessed with ruinous knowledge? I use to wonder how it is that molested children sometimes grow up to be adults who molest. How they, of all people, could damage a child in the way they were damaged. But it's vampire logic; The ruined wanting to ruin; the blessed wanting to bless. We impose our ideals as well as our corruptions on others, asking the world to conform to our image.

Lately I chew on one question, over and over again like a mangled toothpick: What to do about the sexy beast. Fight? Bow down? I have a head cluttered with the conflicting truths of movie morals and children's stories. Being educated in pews certainly didn't help since there is no greater embrace of inconsistent principle than the American Christian church, which told me to both turn my cheek and vote for the best defense.

It's in my nature to fight back. Sometimes I'll be alone in my dark basement, working on my computer with my back to the room. I'll feel something standing behind me, breathing hateful vomit down on the back of my neck. There'll be a second of panic before I'll turn to meet whatever's there so that I can look at its face and choke it if necessary. I feel partly ashamed about this. I don't know why I respond this way. Why I don't turn with empathy for my demon. If I had a hero's heart, I would find the thorn in my demon's side and risk removing it, like Chihiro in Spirited Away. If I had a buddha soul, I'd let it devour me. I don't have the guts or the nature for either. I'm scared, so I fight.

There is more than one way to fight. The world is getting a lesson in non-linear warfare. For a poor zealot with humble resources, there's no sense in lining up on the battlefield against a superpower. To defeat a giant, break its will, not its skin. Take the side door, ignore the rules of civilization, kill your own people, kill yourself if you have to. It's passive aggression. It's Judo, to use the enemy's force and strength against them. But ultimately this is just another form of violence, and every bit as corrupting.

In Beast, the hero tries to take a third, meeker path of passivity. He's the larger man, but lowers his head and never makes eye contact. He tries to diffuse his demon's anger by not fanning the flames of its aggression. This doesn't work and his decency only makes the beast angrier. Thinking people love to play at pacifism, accessorizing their belief system with it like a pair of earrings. But I don't personally know anybody who is really willing to take non-violence as an absolute: to be overrun by anyone who simply has the will. The pacifist dream, one of the great earthly dreams, is born to crumble; a means to an end, but never an end in itself; ultimately discarded, in deference to the immense imperative of our will to power.

I wish the movie gave an answer I could do something with. In the end, the happy people blow a hole in the chest of the beast with a shotgun and bury it beneath the pool, under tiles laid in the shape of a heart, leaving it to eternal writhing. Despite the symbolism, they didn't kill it with love. They killed it so that they might go on loving. As far as I can tell, this is the ultimate moral of our conflict narratives: to defeat evil by overcoming its will with our own. Our reasoning will ultimately reduce all aggression to an abstraction of Hitler which we are happy to burn in effigy. I've been paying attention to the things my daughter watches and reads and there is literally no exception to this. The Care Bears will line up against an enemy and shoot a beam of good vibrations at it, overpowering it with care. LOVE was the Beatle's fluffy weapon of choice in Yellow Submarine. But the outcome is the same. The imposition of will, which is the definition of a violent act, even if it's covered in Care Bare cream. Our stories say: good should triumph over evil by the good imposing their will on the evil. But don't look at that sentence for too long. The words get mixed up and pretty soon, good becomes that which we will.

The fourth way - the Jesus way - is just something I was never taught as a child. Does it exist? I can't get my head around why I should lie down before a tank.

Raised religious, I look for the sermons in things. But I see through a glass darkly. That is, I see through dark eyes, of glass. I listened on the radio Sunday to a man who lost the use of his legs to spinal cancer talk about the great religious value he had found in his affliction. How he had embraced the dark pursuer eating at his physical body. But it just seemed like a mind inventing; compensating in beautiful ways for the ugliness of its experience.

In Beast, what finally wears down the happy people is not the ugliness of the aggression, but that the beast relents and then unexpectedly returns. Its not the onslaught, but the respite followed by onslaught, which is almost impossible to cope with. To have survived the dark pursuer, stronger and wiser, comfortable under your quilt of life lessons, only to have it return and wipe those lessons away. This is what I would find unbearable about cancer or any struggle with remissions. The thought that it might never go away for good and so I might never make a permanent meaning out of the affliction.

I want to understand my sexy beast. To believe it's not a vain struggle. Not senseless (and therefore unbearable).

Wednesday, June 7, 2006


Today at work I heard someone somewhere in the building whistling Chopin – this nocturne that I loved when I was young. That's probably the best thing that's happened at work in the year and a half I've been here.

Check this out:

Where do we find ourselves? In a series of which we do not know the extremes, and believe that it has none. We wake and find ourselves on a stair; Sleep lingers all our lifetime about our eyes, as night hovers all day in the boughs of the fir-tree. All things swim and glimmer. Ghost-like we glide through nature, and should not know our place again.

– R.W. Emerson

Monday, June 5, 2006

Say What?

I've started to collect these. Instances where I misunderstand someone, and what I thought they said was accidentally hilarious. It usually involves some form of chemical influence.

1. The first time it happened I was drugged up on cold medicine and really sick and was trying to get ready for work in the morning while listening to NPR and it they were speaking about something bad happening in the Congo and I thought she described the place as a "Peptocracy", as in Pep-Talk-Cracy, as in a tyranny of motivational speech.

2. I was seeing the band Loretta and the Larkspurs for the first time - at the Belmont - and I was there with my friend Tara and we both were liking it. The Belmont is a loud venue. Tara made an approving face, leaned over and it sounded like she said "They've got a lot of Smurf Appeal." I nodded. Yeah, I guess they do have a lot of smurf appeal. Loretta has a very whimsical, high voice. Very singsongy. Something smurfs would dig. What Tara actually said (which I learned later when I asked for her to elaborate on the larkspurs' Smurf Appeal) was "They've got Commercial Appeal."

3. This involves Julie, from the Larkspurs. A group of us were getting last call at Union Street. We'd all had enough to drink to be disoriented. Julie and had some kind of exchange and then she sighed, sat back, and said what sounded like "Cheesus." Now, I knew she meant to say "Jesus," but I had to ask. "Did you just say 'Cheesus'"? We all laughed. "Cheesus." The word hung in the air, waiting for the punchline. My mind was racing. I knew something was supposed to follow Cheesus. Next to me, Arun was staring down at the table, nodding, extremely drunk, like a drunk bandito in a spaghetti western. Without looking up he beat me to it: "Cheesus Crust."

4. At a fourth of july party yesterday, while fireworks were going off and it was hard to hear anything, even sober, I thought I heard someone say "Statue of Puberty." Statue of Puberty, indeed.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Stanley Kunitz: Does This Make Me Emo?

Apparently there was a poet named Stanley Kunitz. He died this week. He was a poet laureate. I had never heard of him. On the radio they talked about him as I was driving yesterday and they read this poem and it was a revelation. Not too hot. Not too cold. Just right, like baby bear's porridge.

How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
"Live in the layers,
not on the litter."
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Shocking Devlopment

I work as an editor. And I listen to music on headphones while I'm working. The work I get comes in plastic bags. If I pull the job out of the bag while my headphones are on, an electric current is created that shocks my ears and brain and singes my nose hairs. It really hurts. Yet I keep doing it and there's no indication I'm every going to stop. So here's what I'm thinking. As long as I'm shocking myself, is it possible I could get something positive out of this? As in: do it yourself electroshock therapy. For instance, if I was a smoker trying to quit, I could think of a cigarette before I pull the job out of the bag, take the shock, wipe the blood from my nose, and go back to work. Eventually, I'd quit smoking. The thing is, I already eat pretty good and I don't smoke. So I'm trying to think of things to quit.
I also wonder if it would work with memories. If I could shock things or people I don't want to remember from my consciousness.

Working on it.

Monday, March 6, 2006

How To Break A Spell

In the fall I hatched a plan. I was going to quit making my music, not to mention eating it and sleeping with it. I was offered a couple shows in Illinois so I decided to go play those and secretly make them my last. I didn't want to make a big deal out of it, mostly because I didn't want proof of how little it would matter to others. What happened was that I had to take a 4-day weekend away from work to do this and by the end of those 4 days my sanity returned to me and I realized that it was my job that had strangled my joy. It was like waking up from a nap. I stretched, yawned, scratched my ass and said, "What the fuck am I talking about. I don't need to quit something cause I love it. That's crazy talk. I need to quit my job."

There's nothing particularly evil about my job. Except for the fact that nothing flows here. It's like a vacuum where the things you care about can't breathe. And the people... they're nice. But it's hard to tell if they really care about anything.

The thing is I have a daughter. She's got a genius soul and I know she lives on love, tickles and mac'n'cheese, but in the back of my mind I fear more than anything the looks I'll get if I were an out-of-work dad. Even though I just picture Native Americans subsisting on the continent, before the continent was changed, and in my mind know we all, everybody, would be happier with less.

So this is the way it is for me. Like a skinny superman, tied to a block of kryptonite. I even forget most of the time what's making me weak.

Man, last week was a good week. Making new friends. Making new music. A bunch of kids and a Sam Cooke singalong, like the fakest movie moment. Coming back from the dead, ready to break rocks with my hands and shoot heart-melting lasers out of my eyes. What was bad about it? Nothing. Just a bunch of beauty. I told someone, "Hey. I can't sleep in lately. Is it the happiness?"

This morning I woke up at 7 feeling great all over. Woke up the bear and she decided not to fight me while I put her pigtails in, dressed her and gave her her medicine, chocolate milk, vitamins and tickles. We made faces at each other on the way to work in my mirror. After I dropped her off I was listening to NPR and it was dry like the March rock salt drying out my mouth. I put on Talk Talk and listened to Spirit of Eden and was right there in that perfect mix, surrounded by all that dedication and accident. God bless those guys for punishing themselves like that so that I might feel that way on a Monday morning.

And then I was riding the elevator up to my floor, hoping to not be looked at. And then I was in my cube which is the color of grayed sandwich meat. And then I was chained to a block of kryptonite that glowed and made a humming sound.

Thursday, February 2, 2006

Without Warning

Strange experience last night, playing with Charlie Koltak again after not having done so for years. I played a guitar! I said "I wrote this the other day", he listened, and then said "how about this" and we launched into the hot shit. There wasn't any rust. A little nostalgia, but mostly we just did what we do best together.
Over 5 years ago we started a band together in that little padded cell in my basement. In a month, at the blowout, we'll play as Daniel and the Black Pianos. With Judah and Elanors being such serious endevours and being Illinois based, I need something local and loose, so I'm creating the Black Pianos. Charlie is the first person I asked. At this point I'm so in love with music, after music and I had our love tested, that I'm trying to see how much I can make under how many incarnations. I'm going to stay in my basement for a while and just record new songs. There'll be time in the spring for actually being with people. But for now, I need my solitude back.