Wow, Dust. You really let out some shaft in the comments section of ATD #33, didn’t you? Well, I have to say, it was a long time coming. A very long time. Speaking truth to power is one thing. Speaking truth to self-satisfaction is another. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who thought so. Just wanted to say kudos, my friend.
Anonymous, But Hardly Alone
I did receive quite a bit of mail in this vein. I’d say it ran seventy-five percent in favor, with the dissenting twenty-five percent mostly angry that I wasn’t angrier. In truth though, I don’t like this sort of piling on. Everyone is entitled to their particular, or even peculiar, outlook. If not the expectation that certain statements will be allowed to gallop freely across the grounds of Castle Dust. In any case, in response to the chorus of post-contretemps huzzahs, I suggest we use this moment to perhaps step back and attempt to understand and appreciate one another just a little bit more, not despite but because of our differences. We are all who we are, and nothing but. Namely, a Gravatar and a string of disembodied sentences. Pixel opinions are like Pringles–momentarily satisfying, but deceptively sharp and loaded with valve-hardening salt. The expectation of web concealment is a false one–our insecurities and vulnerabilities almost always shine through. Ultimately, it is who we wake up as (not with) that defines us. And the ability to wake each day and start anew, be just a little bit larger and a little bit wiser, is perhaps God’s greatest gift. Even for the Godless. This morning I’ve risen early, sipped my coffee, read the paper, and watched the sun crest the moors. I can attest, wearing nothing but boxers and a smile, from a laptop in the brightest corner of the breakfast nook, that there is nothing but love in my heart.
Your answers tend to be such an odd mix of positive reinforcement and world-weary negativity. It must be very painful carrying that around. And it makes me curious. Especially since you wrote recently about what it means-or doesn’t mean-to be a hero. I pretty much agreed with your choices and the resulting commentary, but it also sounded sort of like someone warning of the dangers of drugs who has never been stoned themselves. Prove that you’ve inhaled, Dust. What is the absolute best experience you’ve ever had? And was that experience heroic?
Well, in terms of “best of” experiences, there are a lot of easy responses: my son’s birth. Marrying Candy. The third time I had sex. Jumping from a plane in Costa Rica. All the large and momentous occasions that our minds are naturally drawn to. Taking acid at Machu Picchu, hearing Shostakovitch for the first time, New Year’s Eve in Vientiane, my crappy band once opening for a very good band on a very large stage. But I don’t think those exploits are particularly edifying. In general, when asked to qualify things in list form, I gravitate toward the quiet and unexpected. Genuine connections. Fleeting moments that held so much more than the time they took to elapse and unfold. Holding hands in a dorm. An interesting discussion on a bus. A meal with a stranger. Hearing a scratchy record at a party.
But in terms of true, unadulterated connection, one particular episode leaps immediately to mind:
I was once staying with a bunch of arty friends in the Midwest who invited me to a George H.W. Bush campaign rally. They intended to get royally fucked up and then peacefully protest (read: snidely condescend) in the middle of a crowd of pure white conservatism, holding clever signs and singing Bob Dylan and N.W.A. lyrics and juggling plastic babies and spitting fire. They’d already amassed vans full of huge puppet heads and bullhorns and whips and slogan pamphlets and soap boxes and even a giant plastic toilet that could be worn over the shoulders like armor. The revelers were dispirit and legion: dykes with hedge clippers, middle school art teachers, radicalized strippers, bleary hippies, horn-rimmed intellectuals, militant sculptors, the proudly and loudly fat, black hoodie anarchists, a single black man, spliff-wielders, freegans, vegans, random Krishnas, one right kind of skinhead, one wrong kind of skinhead, some hard cases from a cafeteria server’s union, and a standoffish quaff of Whitman-esque gentlemen poets. Taking them all in under the massive timbers of the assembly barn, I swallowed my unease, along with a handful of dexedrine, and decided the whole production might be fun. And if not fun, than at least a Real Experience to later write about–which at that age I was certain was vastly more important. From a huge trunk of leftover costumes I chose a priest’s attire, if only because I am large, and the preacher before me was also large, and it was one of the only things that fit. I checked in a broken mirror nailed to one wall. The ensemble was very convincing. Vestments and paraments, the most outrageous of which I declined. Like a golden mitre and gem-encrusted staff. But I donned a clerical collar, a purple vest, a scratchy black suit, and an oversized Bible. Then I picked out a blank placard and wrote in orange tempera block letters: GEORGE BUSH HOOKED MY MOMMY ON LSD-ASK ME HOW!
See, I thought this was both pointed and mordantly clever since George pere had formerly run the CIA, and should I be asked, was prepared to hector his name at length over his damning and unforgivable complicity (really, it was before his time, but still) in the notorious (but not nearly notorious enough) MK-ULTRA program, particularly the segment conducted under the auspices of the morally bankrupt Dr. Donald Ewan Cameron at McGill University in the early 1960’s.
We all piled into about a dozen vans, whereupon a dozen bottle openers began the nonstop levering of icy long necked beers. It took a few merry hours to get there, as we slowly spooled away from rural ease and into the arms of a color-leached urbanity. By the the time we arrived everyone was was well fueled by amber restorative and ready for arty mayhem. The drivers pulled into a busy parking lot along the parade route and let us off into a red, white, and blue throng. It was immediately clear this was a huge mistake. The vans pulled away, heading for the post-hilarity rendezvous point, and we were stuck out in the open, surrounded by chanting unfriendlies. In fact, without a single dyke riding a unicycle, or a single plastic baby being juggled, the vibe turned downright menacing. The crowd was not disposed toward balloons and glo sticks and a respectful debate on funding the regime in El Salvador. No, it was obvious that the rally organizers had been tipped we were coming. Some nose-ringed pole dancer or bearded poet was clearly a traitor. And the Bush people were smart. They’d also provided beer, but mainly to the rowdy business majors and frat boys and wood floor refinishers who had been stationed strategically at the exits. All of them under-paid, over-served, and whooping like The Sons of the Morning Star. Obviously, the Bush advance team took their rallies far more seriously than we’d anticipated. Thick-necked men in suits and earpieces, like corporate Brown Shirts, were pointing at us and egging the bohos on. This was real gutbucket politics, consolidating votes in the trenches, and a fine example of why Mike Dukakis lost by seventeen points. In any case, I immediately dropped my LSD sign and just tried to keep my balance as I got separated from my friends. There was a lot of shouting. A great deal of pushing and shoving. One of our leaders was yelling something about peace and unity through a bullhorn, until it was yanked away from him and smashed underfoot. I saw a stripper take off her high heel and start swinging it like a cutlass, clearing space. Whitmans were yanked by the beard, skinheads were put in headlocks. I was forced randomly outward, through the peculiar molecular geometry of mobs, clockwise and to the edge of the violence. From there I could see an enormous ring of cops watching from across the street. They did nothing, making jokes, slapping thighs with billy clubs.
Were they paid off, or just lazy, I wondered? And did it matter either way?
Something hit me in the back. It felt like a steel bar, but was actually a sock full of flour, wielded by a gibbering, five-slapping teenager, which left a white mark and a deep bruise. I found myself shoved, elbowed, and handed along, until I was eventually surrounded by people who hadn’t seen me emerge from the vans. They seemed wary, even perplexed, but not about to attack. I stared and they stared back. Their gazes were rapt, attentive, expectant.
“Well?” one of them said.
“Well what?” I asked
“Do something!” said a girl in a purple GO TEMPLARS! sweatshirt.
Was she trying to goad me into hitting her, instinctively knowing that action would give the mob the excuse to drop the final pretenses and commence pulling me apart with their bare hands?
On the verge of true panic, I looked down. I was still clutching the bible. It finally dawned on me that this girl thought I really was a priest. Without my LSD sign, there was nothing to indicate that I wasn’t one of them. Legitimate. Upstanding. A man of God.
There was violence happening all around us, hungry, random, feeding on itself.
Admitting that I was a total fake didn’t really seem like an option at that point.
I wanted to run, but didn’t dare.
I wanted to call for help, but there was none to be had.
Instead, I stood taller.
And then opened the velvet-lined bible to a random page.
And read from it.
The crowd around me swelled as I spoke, my voice surprisingly deep and steady. People began to turn their backs on the jostling to listen. The cops finally waded in to the foment, nightsticks raised and lowered, but let us alone, forming a sort of blue cocoon as I continued my verses. Occasionally I looked up at the faces around me, many of which nodded, or closed their eyes, or seconded my words at the appropriate inflection. There were amens. There were praise Jesuses. There were raised hands and bowed heads. Finally, I closed the bible with due reverence and then extemporized about what the passages had meant to me, passages that I’d never read before, which simultaneously seemed to mean nothing at all while containing an essence of great import. We had after all, myself and the assembled, just been up to our necks in Deuteronomy. In the journey from Horeb to Kadesh, and then on to Moab. We were in the desert, attempting to find ourselves. And so, I said, were the protesters. On both sides. I called for calm. I spoke against hate and presumption and the politicization of the idea of being correct. I said that only the devil thought he had the right answer, and he spent all his time on earth trying to convince us that we had the right answer too. When I finished, I was expecting to be called out, denounced, exposed as a fraud, beaten anew. Instead, I began to be hugged. One at a time, as the craziness raged around us, big haired girls and football players and guys in electrician’s jumpsuits hugged and thanked me.
And I hugged them back.
Of course, I was a bald charlatan.
But their genuineness (and my fear, which was no longer fear) had on some level transformed me. My fraudulence was turned from water into port. Suddenly, I understood the draw of The Book, the need to believe, the desire for community, the power of a common origin story, the merit in seeing the best in others, the ease with which it could be pried out, the safety in faith.
So there’s your answer, Radiologist. My best experience, with zero heroism. In fact, an episode containing nothing so much as abject cowardice.
After many, many arrests and a restoring of relative calm, I made my way back to the vans and took my outfit off and thought a long time about my lifelong default positions of condescension and cynicism. The need to belittle the actions or beliefs of others comes from a profound internal weakness. Understanding is indeed possible across all lines. The orthodoxy of being correct, the yoke of knowing, of dismissal, had drained entirely out of me. At least for a cathartic interval.
After all, it’s not what happens in your life that matters, but what you think happened. Despite the lack of nobility in that statement, it is undoubtedly true. Unless, of course, the central event in your life is one you think didn’t happen. In which case, you have my sympathies.
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