a few simple rules

I was pushing a loading cart holding maybe ten heavy boxes and an ironing board down the hallway of ‘senior living center’ (it’s a long story, but irrelevant to this post) when an old guy using a walker came tottering down the hallway with a small homely mixed breed dog that was suffering from some serious sinus issues. I stopped the cart, smiled at the guy, and said “Now that’s a fine-looking dog.” He smiled and chuckled and thanked me. Told me the dog’s name. Said, “He’s friendly,” which I took as an invitation to lean down and pet the wee creature, who was largely indifferent to the entire situation.

My friend, who was pushing a smaller loading cart, gave me a familiar WTF look as we started moving again. I said, “Always compliment a person’s dog. The dog’s don’t care, but it makes their owners happy.” She said, “Is that like a rule of life?”

Always compliment a person’s dog.

I decided that it was. Or should be. And here are a few more basic rules of life.

— Always compliment a person’s dog.
— Don’t block the aisle with your shopping cart.
— Apologize when you’re wrong.
— Don’t wear blackface.
— Hold the door open for everybody.
— Vote.
— Tip your server, even if the service is poor (because these folks are always overworked, get paid very little, are often abused by their customers, and sometimes they make mistakes like everybody else).
— Read at least a few paragraphs after the headlines.
— Tell the people you love that you love them.
— Tell the people you like that you like them.
— Push your damn chair in when you leave the table.
— Check the batteries in your flashlight.
— Don’t argue with stupid people.
— Park between the lines.
— Don’t judge people for the TV shows they watch, or the books they read, or the games they play, or the music they prefer, or the god they worship, or the clothes they wear, or the food they cook, or…just don’t fucking judge people.
— Refer to folks by the names they ask you to use even if you don’t understand and even if you think it’s stupid.
— Say ‘hi’ to strangers now and then.
— Try new foods, even if they sound/look gross.

Say ‘hi’ to strangers now and then.

Okay, that’s not a complete list. And maybe they’re more like guidelines than rules. And they’re my guidelines; they don’t need to apply to anybody else. I figure you’ve probably got your own. But these work for me.

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a short list of things I’d like to see in 2019

In no particular order:

The Great British Baking Show with Paul Hollywood as a contestant. Let’s see how he likes that.
— A movie car chase in which the police officer doing the chasing decides it’s just not worth the risk to the public and just stops.
— The return of home milk delivery in glass bottles.
— Playgrounds for adults, so you could go play on a swing for half an hour without other adults looking at you like you’re some sort of pedophile.
— Louis CK continuing to perform in comedy clubs…and the entire audience standing and walking out.
— A remake of Killing Eve with all the same actors but with a plot that wasn’t phenomenally stupid.
— Donald Trump and his family of grifters and traitors in handcuffs.
— Universal health care in the US.
— Universal selective service in the US. Not necessarily military service, but a couple years of compulsory national, state, or local service.
— George RR Martin admitting he’s sick to death of GoT and acknowledging he’s never going to finishing the last books, so everybody should just watch the HBO show and be satisfied.
— More respect for bollards.
— A harsh, severe, punitive tax on houses with pointless gables and extraneous dormer windows.
— Brett Kavanaugh busted for DWI.
— Gun owners actually held accountable for their guns.
— Actual usable pockets in women’s clothes. It’s 2019, for fuck’s sake.

I’m sure there’s other stuff, but this is all I could come up with while waiting for the coffee to finish becoming coffee.

What about you? What would you like to see in the coming year?

uncomfortable confessional crap – part three

This is what you do. You wake up, you remind yourself that nightmares aren’t real, you turn on a light, toss the blanket back, rotate yourself on the bed, put your two feet on the floor, stand up, and put some clothes on. Then maybe you sit at the computer for a bit, or sit in a comfortable chair and read your book, or fire up Netflix on the television and watch something lighthearted. What you do isn’t terribly important; what’s important is finding something interesting to swab out the residue of whatever ugly thing formed the core of your nightmare.

At about 4:15 this morning, the ugly thing was a simple 55 gallon drum in the corner of an old barn.

I’ve mentioned before that I have occasional nightmares. Not the usual nightmares, but nightmares that revolve around things I’ve done or seen. Or, in this case, something I didn’t actually see, but something that was there anyway. Here’s what happened: years ago I was hanging around a courthouse, waiting to see if a case I’d worked on was actually going to go to trial that day (this is where I should mention I used to be a private investigator specializing in criminal defense work). Another defense lawyer told me his client was going to trial that morning–some drug-related charge–but the client hadn’t shown up and wasn’t answering his phone. He said he could stall for a while, and asked me to go to the defendant’s home and roust him. Since it didn’t look like my case was going to go forward, I agreed.

This sort of thing happens occasionally. Sometimes there’s a valid reason for a defendant not to show up for a court appearance. Not often, but sometimes. Usually all you have to do is show up at their door and remind them that if they don’t get their ass to the courthouse right damned quick, an arrest warrant will be issued and their bail would be forfeited and they’d be even more fucked. That’s assuming you can find them, of course.

This guy lived in the country on what had once been a farm. At some point in the past the farmhouse had burned down (distant past–nothing to do with the defendant), but the barn was still standing. The client lived in an old Airstream trailer beside the barn.

The barn door was partially open and I could see a moderately battered pickup parked inside. I knocked on the trailer door a few times. No answer. I walked around the trailer banging my fist on it, just to let him know I was there. No response. I tried the door. It was unlocked and it opened, so I yelled my name and identified myself as working for his lawyer. Nothing. I decided not to go inside. If he was in there, he clearly had no intention of coming out; if he wasn’t inside, there was no reason to enter,

I did, though, decide to do a quick sweep of the barn. I don’t know why; the barn was no different than the Airstream. He’d have heard me arrive, so if he was inside the barn he had no intention of coming out. But I yelled a hello, identified myself again, and went in anyway. I checked the truck; the hood was cold, so he hadn’t been driving it recently. I generally nosed around, but aside from a couple of old 55 gallon drums in a corner by the door there wasn’t much to see. The drums were out of the ordinary; lots of folks in the country used them to burn trash. I noticed these drums still had their lids on, which was odd, but I didn’t think much of it.

I decided I’d done enough. I wrote ‘You were supposed to be in court today’ on the back of a business card and stuck it under the windshield wiper of the pickup. I wedged another card in the door of the trailer. And I went back to the courthouse.

A week or so later I got a call from the State police. The local police had found my business cards. They’d also found the guy stuffed into one of those 55 gallon drums. Without his head.

I wasn’t a suspect or anything; the Staties were just being thorough. They asked the questions you’d expect them to ask, I gave them the answers I could, and that was it. I don’t know why the guy was killed, when he was killed, or who killed him. It was likely a drug thing, but It wasn’t my case, so I didn’t pay attention to it. The last time I spoke to the guy’s lawyer, he told me they’d never found the guy’s head.

I have no idea why this figures into an occasionally recurring nightmare, but it does. I didn’t know the defendant, I never met him and I don’t even recall his name. I didn’t see anything scary, I didn’t do anything frightening or dangerous. I just walked around and made noise. There’s no reason this should be in my nightmare lineup. But there it is.

I dream I’m at that farm. I walk around the trailer banging on the sides as I go. I open the door to the trailer, but don’t go in. I go into the barn and noodle around, and with each scene in the nightmare I get more and more anxious and scared. In the nightmare I know there’s something horrible in those 55 gallon drums. I don’t know what it is, and I don’t know how I know, but I know it’s there and I know it’s horrible. In fact, I’m not even sure I actually see the drums in my nightmare. But there’s something in that barn, something I don’t want to see, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to see it.

I don’t have this particular nightmare very often, and usually I wake up before it gets too bad. Usually, I’m able to go back to sleep. But not this morning. This morning I was too unsettled to even consider going back to sleep.

It’s ridiculous, isn’t it. These sort of nightmares used to be a common occurrence. Now I have them three or four times a year. The ones that wake me up and keep me up, I mean. So it’s not a big deal. I usually forget about the dream after a bit. The only reason I’m still thinking about it this morning is because I became curious why and how 55 gallon drums (or 200 liter drums if you’re European, or 44 gallons if you’re in the UK) became the standard size. (Spoiler: the Iron Clad Manufacturing Co. patented a process for making stackable steel storage drums in 1904; but what’s really cool is the fact that the company was owned by Nellie Bly.)

I see old 55 gallon drums with some regularity when I’m out noodling around. They don’t bother me; I don’t associate them with that incident. There’s nothing spooky or scary about them. But still they sometimes show up in my dreams and wake me up. When that happens, I remind myself that nightmares aren’t real, I turn on a light, toss the blanket back, rotate myself on the bed, put my two feet on the floor, stand up, and put some clothes on. Then I find something to distract myself.

Thar’s what you do.

thank you for your service

I had a routine medical exam thing a couple of weeks ago, part of which involved answering a bunch of questions. One of the questions was “Are you a veteran?” I said yes, she said “Thank you for your service,” and went on to the next question.

I didn’t think about it at the time. I mean, it was just a question. Like “Do you smoke?” or “Do you exercise?” But afterwards, that reflexive “Thank you for your service” started to irk me. Because it was reflexive. Like saying ‘Bless you’ when somebody sneezes. It was just an automatic response.

I found myself thinking ‘Why the hell is she thanking me? I didn’t do it for her.’ And because I’m the sort of guy who tends to think too much about too many things, I started to wonder how I’d explain to her why I joined the military. The simple answer is because it was expected of me. Which is true and accurate, but it’s not a complete answer.

I come from a military family. My father had been a Marine in the South Pacific during WWII, most of my uncles had served in the Army in Europe, one served in Korea during that war. I came of military age during the last years of the war in Vietnam. Both of my older brothers were Marines in Vietnam. One was badly wounded physically, the other was badly wounded emotionally.

I protested against that war. I didn’t start protesting until after my brother had been shot up. I came home from school one day to find a Marine officer and chaplain standing outside the door to my home. They’d knocked on the door, but my mother wouldn’t let them into the house. I assumed my brother had been killed. I let them in, and we learned he’d been shot — but because he was in a recon unit, nobody seemed to know where he was when he was shot, how badly he was wounded, or even what parts of his body had been hit. I started protesting while he was still hospitalized; he was hospitalized for nearly a year. I kept protesting when my other brother joined the Marines and went to Vietnam. It angered my father, it angered my brothers, but I did it anyway. 

And when I eighteen, I joined the military. Not the Marines — both of my brothers made me promise I wouldn’t join the Marines. I joined the Air Force. I hadn’t gone to a protest since I graduated from high school, but the war in Vietnam was still going on.

So why did I join? Because it was expected of me. Because I expected it of myself. Because my family taught me that the notion of service was important. Not necessarily military service, but service. To the community, to the state, to the nation. I was taught to be thankful for what I was given and that I should give back.

I hated it. I hated having to wear a uniform. I hated having to salute people. I hated following orders. I hated it, but I was a damned good medic. I hated it, but I learned I could do stuff I’d no idea I could do. I hated it, but I learned discipline. Not just to follow rules and orders, but actual discipline — how to control myself in situations where control is critical and necessary. I hated it, but at the same time I felt I was serving a purpose — that in some very small but meaningful way I was giving back. And even though I spent four long years in military harness, I’m aware I didn’t really do that much.

Thinking about all that — and about the woman who’d automatically thanked me for my service — I came to the conclusion that maybe I really did, after all, do it for her. I didn’t do it because of her, but I did it for her. The thing is, somebody has to do it. Regardless of what ‘it’ is, somebody always has to do it. Somebody has to shoulder a firearm and walk post. Somebody has to fight fires. Somebody has to enforce law. Somebody has to pick up trash and repair roads and defend the accused and take photos for your driver’s license and teach your kids and deliver your mail. You don’t know who they are, and they’re not doing it because of you, but they are most definitely doing it for you. They may not do it well, but nevertheless they’re doing it for you

They’ll do it whether you thank them or not. Because it’s expected. Because it’s necessary. And now I realize it was silly and stupid for me to expect that woman to sincerely thank me for my service. It was silly and stupid to be irked by her perfunctory thanks. Because how can she possibly know what my service was like? And I realize now that my thanks to her, when she’d finished her examination, was also perfunctory. Because I’ve no idea what her service is like.

So I’m going to try to be more sincere when I thank people. At least over this holiday season, I’m going to try to genuinely recognize and appreciate the person who serves me my burger, or rings up my groceries at the register, or drops off the package from Amazon. I’m not going to completely succeed, I know that. But damn it, I’m going to try.

And if you’re reading this, thank you very much.

Editorial Note: I thought I’d illustrate this with a photo or two from my days in uniform, but I’ve never bothered to keep any of that stuff. I’m going to check with my ex to see if she kept any of it. It could be worth a giggle.

a mild defense of facebook

Facebook, I’m told, isn’t cool anymore. I’m not sure it ever was — but now, at this point in time, I’ve been assured by folks who have a more confident hand at the ‘this is cool’ wheel, Facebook is decidedly not cool.

Cool or not, Facebook is an integral part of my morning routine. Since I haven’t held a straight job since 2000 and since I have little native self-discipline, I rely on routines to make sure I get stuff done. Without routines I’d spend my entire day with a cat on my lap, researching stuff I don’t really need to know (seriously, how does a turtle pull its head into its shell–do the vertebrae collapse somehow, does its neck just curve a lot, what the hell is going on in there?), or entranced by the way the morning sunlight refracts off the sugar crystals on the top of the blueberry muffins, or indulging in the shame of politics (indictments of Jerome Corsi, yes please), or pointlessly unpacking all the elements of the most recent Doctor Who episode (what other sci-fi show would do such an intimate exploration of the Partition of India?).

Initiating my morning routine.

So routines (which are also not cool) are important to me, and Facebook is part of my morning routine, which is as follows:

  1. Check the perimeter (though c’mon, I’m living in an incredibly safe and boring suburb now, and the only thing I’m likely to discover when checking the perimeter is the weather) with the aid of the cat.
  2. Feed the cat her stink food.
  3. Make coffee.
  4. Read the news — general Google news headlines first, dipping into stories that interest me; Washington Post for fundamental news reporting; Daily Kos for the lefty take on events.
  5. Tell myself to read my email, look at my email subject headings, then usually ignore my email (unless it’s clearly hate mail, which I’ll generally read for some reason; today’s hate mail: “Are all you cunts ready for cw2? We are!” Which I probably shouldn’t have read, because now I feel I have to get ready for the Second American Civil War, and who has time for that?).
  6. Scroll through Facebook.

I should note that I don’t do Family Facebook. I keep my personal life separate from my online life, so I don’t ‘friend’ loved ones or family members (and I might as well confess that I’m really not at all interested to hear that somebody’s grandchild scored a goal at a soccer match over the weekend). Instead Facebook for me is about friends and art and politics, which may sound like three separate categories but in reality are generally all smooshed together.

Friends, art, and politics smooshed together through Panel Pulp.

What that means in practical terms is this: Facebook inserts serendipity and random weirdness into my morning. I like that. I like that I’ve become friendly and familiar with folks and I have no recollection at all how I came into contact with them. These are people who’ve come bouncing into my line of sight from some odd social angle and caught my attention in some pleasing or interesting way (and now that I say that, it occurs to me that the process is a lot like seeing the morning sunlight refracting off the sugar crystals on the blueberry muffin). It just happens and I’m lucky enough to notice.

The serendipity and random weirdness isn’t just how I’ve made friends on Facebook, it’s also an intrinsic and essential part of reason I keep this as part of my routine. People post the most unexpected and wonderful stuff on Facebook. I’m not talking about videos of amusing cats or goats playing balloons, though I often enjoy that stuff too. I’m talking about stuff for audiences that I didn’t even know existed. Like Panel Pulp (which is actually a Twitter account, but is often reposted on Facebook).

Another example: international marble racing. If not for my friend Young Jo, I’d have never encountered Jelle’s Marble Runs or seen these exciting qualifying races for the 2018 Sand Marble Race (I prefer the organic nature of sand marble racing over the more sophisticated manufactured marble racing tracks…but that’s just me; also, I’m inclined to be suspicious of Marbly McMarbleface).

Another bit of weird and random I love about Facebook is that I encounter folks who are open and unapologetic about their weirdness. So open, in fact, that they’re not even aware of how weird their weirdness is, and I find that completely endearing. I mean, who creates marble race tracks, records the races, keeps track of the stats of the individual marbles, and narrates the videos? Even weirder is the fact that these videos have an audience. I love that.

The most consistent thing that draws me to Facebook (aside from the politics) is that it exposes me to some really diverse facets of the arts. Bizarre sci-fi art, stark 1950s Japanese noir photography, beautiful original pen and ink art, strange and/or practical yarn art, and lots of personal photography. For example, this morning I saw this photograph by Larry Rose:

Larry Rose — West room corner.

I have no memory of how I became friends with Larry Rose. I know little about him as a person. But I know and enjoy his work. This wonderfully subtle photo kept me from doing the work I was supposed to be doing for maybe ten minutes. At least two different light sources, each operating at a different wavelength, creating strange but predictable shadows and colors. An antenna at an almost perfect 45 degree angle that creates a bit of visual tension against all the other horizontal and vertical lines. And that beautiful Borg Cube of a lampshade that seems to be floating in the corner. Without Facebook, I’d probably never have seen this photo.

Facebook isn’t cool. But there is cool stuff to be found there. There’s a chance I’d have learned about Burning the Clocks without Facebook, but probably not. And right now there’s an excellent chance that you’re wondering if Burning the Clocks is a band, or a movie, or who the hell knows what. There’s a pretty good chance you’ll click on the link and find out.

Is that cool? I kinda think so.

knuckles steps away

Back in January I began a second photo project (and seeing what I’ve just written, there’s a part of me asking ‘What sort of boneheaded idjit starts a photo project in fucking January?’) under the Knuckles Dobrovic alias. The first project was simple and stupid and rather fun: I put a thing on a table and photographed it. This second project was also simple and fairly unoriginal: when I took a walk I’d stop periodically and photograph my feet. The only original aspect of the notion was that I’d layer two or three of those photos on top of each other, making double or triple exposures.

January 29, the project began.

Why? Well, since it’s a photo project, there has to be at least one pretentious bullshit element at work, right? Dude, this project has two pretentious bullshit elements. Here they are.

Pretentious Bullshit Element One: Susan Sontag described photographs as ‘a thin slice of space and time.’ By layering different photographs shot at different times in different places on the same day, I wanted to suggest there’s a thread that ties together those discreet slices of time and place. I wanted to suggest that although I shot THIS photo HERE and THAT photo THERE, they’re basically one photograph of the same walk.

Pretentious Bullshit Element Two: The Buddhist monk Thích Nhat Hạnh, said this about walking meditation: When you walk, arrive with every step. I love that idea, though I’m not entirely sure what it actually means. But when I stopped to take the photos for this gig, I liked to tell myself that I’d arrived at that scattering of dead leaves, or at that lost mitten, or at that manhole cover.

February 19

See? Told you it was pretentious bullshit. But it helped me establish the gig in my head. It made the project purposeful. The concept appealed to me. The concept still does. But it’s been nine months, and I think I’ve learned as much as I can from the gig. I’d like to say I’ve accomplished my goal, except that there really wasn’t any goal. It was just an interesting thing to do while walking. And now it’s beginning to feel a tad stale to me.

March 12

One of the things I learned, though, is that the sort of stuff I’d originally thought might be interesting, often wasn’t. Shadow turned out to be surprisingly difficult to incorporate. Bright colors were often discordant in double exposures, or else they just turned into a muddy mucky brown. And small visually interesting stuff (like, say, a dead sparrow or a pair of sunglasses with one shattered lens) just tend to disappear in double exposures. 

April 26

I also discovered that I’m in bondage to a certain level of geometric orderliness. Initially, I deliberately photographed a lot of diagonal lines in the hope they’d add a pleasing complexity to the final photographs. Sometimes they did, but more often they just made the double exposures confusing. So I found myself relying more and more on lines that were horizontal or vertical — a sort of Mondrian neoplasticism (and boom, there’s more pretentious bullshit).

June 11

Finally, I was sort of surprised that not every walk resulted in a double exposure I found pleasing enough to publish. I’ve no idea how many total photos I shot for this project, or how many walks I took, but I generally shot at least three and up to eight photos of my feet on each walk. On some walks I simply failed to photograph two things that would work as double exposures.

August 17

So there we are. Nine months, 124 photographs. That’s enough. This gig is done. But I’m going to re-repeat something I said at the end of the first Knuckles project (and repeated at the beginning of this project):

I’ll probably come up with some other sort of project, simply because I’ve grown fond of the name Knuckles Dobrovic. I realize that’s a stupid reason. I don’t care. I’ve no objection to doing things for stupid reasons.

September 29

I don’t know yet what the project will be. I’m still intrigued by double exposures, so it may have something to do with that. And I’m intrigued by the concept of appropriation, so that may work into it somehow. Or it may be something completely unrelated to those things. Or hell, I may not come up with any idea at all, and this will be the end of Knuckles Dobrovic.

But I doubt it.

October 31, project ends.

ADDENDUM: I have been chastised for not including a link to the project on Instagram. For some reason, it never occurred to me. I suck at self-promotion. But for those interested in seeing all the photos, here you go: Knuckles Dobrovic.

suicide

Kate Spade a few days ago. Anthony Bourdain today. I’m rarely surprised when I hear somebody has committed suicide. Saddened, yes, to be sure, but hardly ever shocked or surprised. Why? Partly because there are so many reasons for folks to want to kill themselves, and partly because thoughts of suicide are universal, and partly because the thought of nonexistence can be so strangely attractive.

I doubt I know anybody who hasn’t, at one point or another, thought about how nice it would be if you could just remove yourself from existence. All your problems, all those life complications, all that stress and anxiety and pressure — all of it, just gone.

For some folks there might be some measure of vindictiveness in the thought; that whole ‘They’ll miss me when I’m gone‘ thing. But I suspect most folks who indulge in the thought of suicide are more likely to be thinking something like ‘I wish I’d never been born.’ It’s not death itself that’s attractive, it’s deletion. It’s not being whited out or erased from the page so much as having never been written onto the page in the first place. That way nobody misses you when you’re gone, nobody suffers.

Kate Spade

Most of us never act on those thoughts, of course. Some do. Some succeed. But here’s the thing: everybody has a reason to commit suicide. Everybody. Most of us also have reasons not to do it.

Here are my reasons for suicide: 1) I’ve witnessed/done way too many ugly things in my life; I have way too many ugly images in my head, and not a day goes by without at least one of them popping up, 2) I’m getting old and my body is beginning to fail; I hurt a lot; my knees are crap; I can no longer do things I used to do easily, which is sometimes comical and sometimes terribly frustrating, 3) I’m moderately poor; I never expected to live this long, so I took no steps to insure I’d have enough money to live comfortably as I aged (in the same way I took no steps to insure I’d be healthy). I’m not so poor I’ll ever miss a meal, but more poor than I ever expected to be.

I don’t regret any of that. I may not like the images in my head, but I’m glad I’ve lived the sort of life where I experienced stuff most folks haven’t. I may be beat-up physically, but I’m glad I’ve lived the sort of life where fear of pain or suffering never stopped me from doing something. And I may be poor, but I’m glad I’ve never felt the need for financial security and I’m glad I’ve never made a safe career choice or taken a career path for a steady paycheck.

Anthony Bourdain

Here are my primary reasons for NOT committing suicide: joy and curiosity. Every single day — hell, several times each and every day — I find something fascinating to see, think about, watch, study, enjoy. Every day — several times a day — something happens that makes me laugh, that delights me, that makes me stupidly happy. Every day, several times a day, I’m glad I’m alive. All that far outweighs any passing desire to delete myself from existence.

Besides, the convenient thing about suicide is that you can always do it tomorrow. It’s almost always an option. There’s some weird comfort in that.

I need to acknowledge, though, that I’ve never experienced actual depression. I’ve been deeply sad, I’ve been desperate, I’ve been terrified, but I’ve never felt any sort of sustained depression. That’s a closed box for me; I can understand it intellectually, but I’ve no idea what it’s like to live with any more than I know what it’s like to be blind. But if depression makes a person blind to beauty and joy and curiosity, I understand why it would seem to close any option for living.

So I’m sad about Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. I’m sad for their friends and family. I’m sad they felt they’d run out of options. I wish they’d been able to find a reason to delay the decision to kill themselves. I wish they’d continued to find reasons to delay that decision. I’m not surprised by what they did, and I think the world is a slightly lesser place without them in it — not just because they were celebrities or accomplished in their chosen fields, but because their continued existence was part of what made being alive worthwhile for others.

I think that’s probably true for almost everybody who considers suicide.