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“Go Somewhere and Stop”

17 Oct

Poet Gary Snyder wrote this in answer to the eternal questions that haunt people who, often in life, find themselves in the wrong place: What do we do? Where do we go? How do we make a place?

Usually it’s not “the wrong place” in a larger scheme or even cultural or social construct, just the wrong place for some people at that particular time in their lives. And sometimes the wrong place morphs itself into that, after being the right place for quite some time. Places become right and wrong because of people inhabiting them. Because, often, we make places rather than live in them. We force them. Twist and starve the land by means of exploitation. Fit and work the soil into whatever box (field) we’ve designated for it. (Corral animals into restrictive pens on that land for other exploitative uses.)

No worries, this isn’t that kind of piece. Plenty of other more eloquent writers, farmers, journalists, novelists, and people living in their places—their homes—have done a much better job at documenting what we have done to . . . places. To make them “wrong” or “right.”

Gary Snyder’s imperative really resonated with me when I came across it not too long ago. It did so mainly because of its simplicity and honesty. It also implies stewardship and respect given by those who end up stopping (for good or not) in those places, to those places. At least that’s how it reads to me. But maybe to others it reads: “Go somewhere and stop. Now tear up the joint top to bottom, build your home on the ashes and soot remaining, and put up a Walmart while you’re at it ’cause we’re going to need stuff. Lots of it. And, naturally, pave this land here with black asphalt so we can have a giant parking lot for the Walmart. Where else are folks gonna leave their cars?”

No worries, this isn’t that kind of piece. But it sure does sound like it could be.

Gary Snyder’s advice connects with me not just as a regular human being trying to be as good a steward to my environment as possible (finally!), but also as an immigrant. I read somewhere recently (WaPo? NYTimes? PBS? CBC?) that a person in the States moves an average of 12 times in their lives. I thought that stat ridiculously high. Look at me, I thought. I’ve had long-term stints in Washington, D.C. (1982-2000), Florida (2000-2004), and Raleigh, N.C. (2004-present). No way a person moves around so much. The article is exaggerating for the sake of readership outrage. Or some other reason that has to do with advertising revenue.

But I took stock of my own life. Counting my place of birth in Romania, I have moved 14 times in my life. Given my 18 years of staying local to D.C. and 17 years and counting as a Raleigh stalwart, I am blown away by this slow-motion mobility. This probably doesn’t surprise too many people, I realize. My daughter’s mother attended 13 different schools in 4 different states just through the end of her academic career, which ended with her graduation from high school.

I do not and never have wished to speak for immigrants in general; I can only speak for my immigrant self. But I have never in my life felt like I have put down roots in any place. Despite the aforementioned years upon years in those areas. Or maybe I did put down some roots—I think fondly of growing up in the D.C. area even though we were going through some difficult times during those decades—but I’ve always ended up digging them out and moving them to someplace else to be buried in that particular earth.

And yet, generally, I’d have to say that mine hasn’t been a transitory life at all. It could be that, for people like me, the years lived can be corralled into phases or acts. It could be. Sociologists or anthropologists are likely able to better analyze my life or similar lives of other immigrants. There sure is a ton of literature and comment, though, on the virtues of being born and staying put and making a life of productivity right there, on the land which gave birth to you. It seems that the act of leaving home never to return, for some, is unforgivable.

The idea of home, hearth, and allegiance has been debated and explored and ruminated upon by so many other eloquent writers, poets, and artists, that I feel dumb even writing a paragraph about it here. Speaking on the birth of the cool—bebop jazz pioneered by the likes of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Cannonball Adderley, Dexter Gordon, and a bit later taken out of the stratosphere by Miles, Coltrane, Monk, and the others—a grumpy Ralph Ellison in several essays expressed melancholy for the big band and Saturday night dance hall days of the Savoys and the Apollos, while eschewing bebop as the frantic shriek of a lost, big-citified people whose home is “nowhere.”*

Also speaking on the concept of homestead and allegiance, but in a much less eloquent fashion, my father once scoffed in jest when I was a boy having just arrived in the States: “…what home? We are immigrants. We have been uprooted for good.” Never mind that immigration for my family was a decision apparently well thought out and planned. (You did that to yourself, buddy!) But then again, most emigres take decisive action for some urgent and pressing reason, not the least being genocide or social/tribal upheaval in their homeland. At least in my limited circles, I have never met an immigrant who willingly la-di-da-ed their way to another foreign land because, say, they were bored or decided to “shake things up.” Whichever way those decisions to leave were made (in haste or long-time planned), they were—in effect—forced to be made. Under duress, likely. I often think of these decisions on par with having been excommunicated. And sometimes, excommunication carrying the threat of extinction if not accepted.

I am writing this brief piece as thoughts of pulling up stakes and leaving this country now are not just being entertained by my small family, but indeed beginning to be fleshed out and certain plans put into actions. There are many questions that pop up if one is in their mid-50s and planning on (once again, in my case) uprooting and settling in another country: What do we do? Where exactly do we go? How do we make a place?

Well . . . poet Gary Snyder may have a good answer.

*Living with Music – Ralph Ellison’s Jazz Writings, Random House, 2001

Letters, We Get Letters

4 Oct

To: Cherie Berry, an American Republican politician
From: Dr. “Martens” Sarkis Sarkissian

Dear Commissioner of Elevators,

I am writing to complain that Ken Burns is taking up too much space.

Recently, I was visiting the mythical, mystical city of Durham and its gorgeous American Tobacco Campus. The campus serves as headquarters to many well-known and successful high-tech companies (such as “Wizen Up Pointdexter” and “Ding Dong, It’s the Police!”), as well as my local PBS station, WUNC.

I listen to the various PBS programs during the day quite often, and I know for a fact that they broadcast from the historic American Tobacco Campus because right there, during station breaks and before the beginning of every show, they always say: “broadcasting from the historic American Tobacco Campus.” Thus is how I know they are broadcasting from the historic American Tobacco Campus. I would change the tag line to “the iconic American Tobacco Campus,” but that’s neither here nor there. (It’s somewhere, though, and I think it should be found and considered very seriously.)

This past Saturday I was in the elevator in the PBS building looking to “drop off a package” (LOL) for Judy Woodruff when, on the 2nd floor, Ken Burns walked into the elevator and selfishly proceeded to take up almost the entire space.

Needless to say, I felt stifled. I could hardly breathe. It nearly triggered a heart attack. You can imagine how much space a man of his stature can occupy in an elevator. And, mind you, there was no one else in there but me and Ken Burns! What gives? There was plenty of room for him to stand in the left hand corner, just by the buttons and the emergency telephonies.

I think people walking into elevators need to be more considerate of other passengers. We are not all famous song-and-dance men like Ken Burns. We are just regular working stiffs who have to ride in elevators because our back is shot, we have screws in our ankle, and the pig valve sutured into our defective heart 15 years ago is about to expire, in badly need of replacement.

Or, could it be that the elevator was too small? Maybe it wasn’t manufactured up to code. Contractors cut corners, you know. A narrower elevator means a narrower shaft. A narrower shaft allows for a larger corner office for that Fat Cat Boss. Again, this is where you would come in and put your foot down, as the North Carolina Commissioner of Elevators.

But don’t put it down too hard because it might destabilize the car itself, and that may be trouble.

In closing, I have one elevator question that I am sure you can answer based on your years of expertise. If an elevator cable snaps and the car begins to fall quickly, is it possible for the unlucky occupant to wait until it nearly reaches the ground and then, just a millisecond before the crash, to time a quick jump up inside the elevator, thus sparing his life? I mean the timing would have to be exquisite but it could be done with a lot of practice. I realize that may be a question for a physics professor, but perhaps you could take a shot at it. Please respond in writing at the return address provided on the front of the envelope.

Regards,
Dr. “Martens” Sarkis Sarkissian


To: Eligibility & Enrollment Support Center, State Health Plan
From: Rick Roll, Junior Editorial Assistant to the Senior Editorial Assistant, The N.C. Daily Dozen—Your Cage-Free, Organic Eggs Monthly Revue

Dear Sir, Madam, or Other Identifying Noun,

I have a couple of quick questions about the upcoming open enrollment period for 2021-2022.

First, just to satisfy my curiosity: why is there a 2022 name change in the low and classic options for dental and vision insurance from the “NC Flex Plan” to the “NC Plex Flan”?? Is that a dyslexic typo that was missed by the proofreading department, or is it a culinary euphemism/inside joke type thing in the healthcare field? Just curious.

Second: for the 70/30 health plan members such as me, will there be a tobacco attestation as in the past in order to get the monthly discount?

As you know, having been a State Health Plan member for nearly 16 years, I do not use tobacco products or e-liquids per se. I do, however, smoke my own bacon and ham. It is a hobby I picked up during the COVID-19 lockdown, like many other shut-ins who tried various activities. Whenever I tell people of this new hobby, they always respond with the clever and whimsical: “Now that’s one tuff sumbitch right there!” And they tap my chest with their finger, usually. Excuse my language, but that is what they say. I found that funny the first few dozen times. But I do not find it funny anymore.

So, during the open enrollment period coming up October 11-29, given that I do smoke my own meats, will I have to complete the smoking attestation (thus technically making me a liar on the re-enrollment form) or do I need to find a smoking cessation program in order to get my monthly discount?

I eagerly await your response. And if you should ever need a few pounds of home-smoked bacon or pork products, do not hesitate to contact me at the return address printed on the envelope. You can also page me at (919) 867-5309. Wait until the machine gives a double beep and then enter your phone number. I will call you back right away. Many thanks for your time and advice.

Savagely yours,
Rick Roll

Farewell the Queens of Yesteryear

1 Oct

I have been thinking lately of Joan Didion. Not lately, actually. I’ve been thinking of her on and off really since the pandemic lockdown in March, 2020. A few months before that I had watched twice the somewhat abbreviated but heartfelt and honest documentary on her life, The Center Will Not Hold, a project spearheaded by her nephew, Griffin Dunne. Even before the lockdown she’d been living in her apartment in New York City quite a bit less a social animal than the decades past in her life—not a recluse by any means, but fairly isolated it seemed.

So when the city announced it shut itself down completely, Joan Didion was the first person I thought of. I figured she wasn’t alone alone, but . . . with no one able to leave their home, I just thought: who is going to look out for Joan Didion? How is she gonna get food? In the documentary she seemed extremely thin, and even Griffin Dunne and other family members seemed to have been quite worried about her weight.

And I thought of her once again just last week. Something my daughter showed me on her phone or maybe it was lyrics to a song she liked that mentioned “slouching towards Betlehem” that reminded me to show her Joan’s book with the same title. I had picked up that book the day before to make sure the word was “towards” not “toward.” I had been writing a letter to another writer that mentioned my love for that book and wanted to get the title right. Check this out! I told my daughter as I pulled Joan’s book off the shelf and showed her the title. I just looked at this yesterday. The moment of synchronicity wasn’t left unnoticed or unappreciated by either of us.

The title of this piece is likely insulting. We haven’t lost Joan Didion just as we still haven’t lost a lot of older people we’ve grown to love in our lives: artists, musicians, writers, actors, architects, mothers, fathers. But I sense that things are coming to an end of sorts. Eras are wrapping up. They’re swallowed by the seamless, information-overloaded daily rhythms of life now. So much information and data and opinion and echo rushes at us daily, that history is buried now at the speed of 21st century distraction. Who even thinks about Joan Didion anymore? Who even knows who she is?

And I just realize: Joan Didion isn’t Joan Didion herself as I am meaning it. She is, but she isn’t what I mean to write about here. Joan Didion is everyone that isn’t right now part of our daily thoughts that we once may have known or just thought of. This may not make sense to anyone but me, but it’s apropos. I write these things for me. It sounds pompous, but it’s not meant to be that way. These are meant to be shared and read, sure, by others than me if those others so wish, but they’re not written specifically for anyone other than me. So “Joan Didion isn’t Joan Didion” may not make much sense to some who are reading this. I think that is fine. Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury doesn’t make any sense to me. Nor does much of James Joyce’s work. And that is also fine. The writing world, the classicists, the historians, the contemporary writers, and time itself (the culprit for all this . . . forgetting stuff) all abide.

I think the realization, the true realization of saying farewell to the queens of yesteryear, whether they are Joan Didion, an old episode of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In, or that old chest of drawers still collecting cobwebs up in the attic for the last 75 years, only dawns on someone having long-hauled it at the very least to a fifth decade of life. At least.

By the way, speaking of, I just watched an episode of “The Love Boat” last night in which Dick Martin played a paranoid passenger obsessed with being bugged by . . . the CIA? The Soviets? The government? I don’t really recall. “The Love Boat’s” auxiliary plot arcs, other than the usual star: Love, aren’t exactly memorable or worth fretting about.

And even if those queens of yesteryear aren’t gone yet, but just simply fading away (I am not thoroughly convinced that burning out is a better alternative), the process of saying goodbye does take some personal time to get used to. It is drawn out, in a way, almost as life itself is drawn out—just on a much smaller scale. Without any intent of being insulting, I have been saying goodbye to Betty White, for example, for quite some time.

So, goodbye Joan Didion. You are always here.

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