30 June 2009

This One's For Steve

The seeds I stuck in the dirt three and a half months ago are now full-on tomato plants. These bad boys are heirloom Brandywines - a popular breed up in these parts. My postman ("Steve") seems positive that, before my tomatoes ripen, "one of these shady Iowa City characters is going to steal them off the vine." Some people need to nay-say and Steve The Postman is one of them, turns out...

"Yeah, I hear that, Steve, which is why I'm planning on digging a series of punji stick traps around the perimeter of our patio." Actually, no. My exact words were, "I hear you Steve, but a man's gotta be able to trust his fellow man with a few tomatoes." Steve just looked at me like a UFO flew out of my mouth and said "Yeah, I guess."

29 June 2009

Images of Florida

Images of Atlantic Florida in late Spring.

28 June 2009

Fort Matanzas

Back to the vacation photos...This is Fort Matanzas (or, en Ingles, Fort Massacre). Here, in 1565, the Spanish saw to it that a bunch of French soldiers died. Neither of those two groups of people really belonged here - but who's to say who belongs where, right? Right. And so the waters ran red with the blood of the French, etc. etc. etc. so that, three hundred years later, the good, non-indigenous people of Florida could enjoy McDonald's and Burger Kings and affordable pastel Lustron Homes.

Honestly, this fort terrified me. And not because of all it represents vis-a-vis colonialism, but because of the fort itself - its monolithic construction and seamless, imposing form. If you ditched that flag, those two tiny windows and twin cannons would look even more surrealistically ominous, and the whole edifice like some kind of archetypal proto-geometrical shape conjured up by the insidious machine elves dwelling in the shadowiest nether-regions of the psyche. This place felt like a hall of horrors to me, the setting of some alien, mathematical psychotronic torture scene.

Notably, Edie & Jorge's little girl, Luna, found a huge rattlesnake skin in the reeds at the base of the fort. Right about the same time, the world's most insecure tour guide, in period costume, fired an olde tyme musket at the ocean. He looked like Weird Al Yankovich. High winds made the musket sound like a pop gun and poof! a little cloud of olde tyme smoke.

24 June 2009

Dream Song 14

"...the sky flashes, the great sea yearns. We ourselves flash and yearn..." John Berryman, the poet, said that ("Dream Song 14"). He said a lot of other things too, before jumping off a bridge in Minnesota and adding the final question mark to his body of work. Berryman, man... I recently overheard a Writer's Workshop faculty member say that Berryman was the last American poet worth really studying. I don't agree, necessarily. But I was bit by the Berryman bug at a time - thirteen years ago - that I was heavy into Buddhism and the Black Arts Movement. Something about Berryman just seemed to land perfectly between those two things for me. So I bought the Dream Songs and have been studying them ever since.

Anyway, I'm writing a story about lightning bolts, autopsies, and Nagasaki now. So everywhere I look, I see things that remind me of lightning - hence the photo above. When schizophrenics do this, it's called referencing, and it's a pathology. It's a feature of psychosis, megalomania, paranoia, and narcissism, in general. I come from a school of thought that says that these things in moderation are not necessarily bad, though, despite what the DSM might tell you. I mean, these phenomena can also be viewed as ephemeral shades of the human experience that come and go...

"Thus shall you think of all this fleeting world, A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream; A flash of lightning in a summer cloud, A flickering lamp, a phantom, a dream." The Buddha said that (Diamond Sutra #23).

Anyway, I recently had a helpful discussion about this with my friend from the Writer's Workshop, Teal Minton. Teal and I were arguing about "How do you teach fiction writing to undergrads - or anyone - anyway?" We ended up getting into a comparison of voice/aesthetics versus scene- or character-driven prose. And eventually, we found ourselves talking about Jungian individuation. Teal said it best: "Our job is to get them to find something to love about writing, to get them to start getting curious about their own voice, so they can write more and more honestly and true to their own voice. I mean, that's been my personal process..."

It's been my process too. Originally, when I first started the Workshop, I was worried that I didn't know enough nuts & bolts of fiction writing - that I had lucked out during the application process, basically. But, no. Now I can see that good, indelible writing hinges largely on fidelity to the voice, a product born of the writer's becoming more and more indelibly himself/herself on the page, and less concerned about the aesthetics of the superego. That's how Berryman - and anyone really great wrote/writes. So, yeah, there's a little megalomania in that. There's some narcissism, to be sure. Some indulgence, no doubt.

But it's also a true creative process, dynamic and, at times, terrifyingly humbling. At least it's not the Imitation Game, with all the murderous safety it promises. I know now that my voice is not a liability. It's not something to spray chemical death on. And the Workshop is a stellar environment for learning this. I was lucky, thirteen years ago, to be introduced to Berryman (and a lot of other writers and poets) by a poetry teacher who prized the voice: "Berryman's the finger, not the moon, if you feel me."

23 June 2009

And Fireflies

And this, of course, was the crystalline hypocenter of the Florida trip - Paul & Lanie's matrimony. It all seems like so long ago now, even though it was just last month. Being down there in St. Augustine, by the ocean, with friends, made me remember on a gut level how important it is for me to have an elemental relationship to my environment. The kind of connection to "place" that hasn't got anything to do with jobs, economics, neighborhoods or even people. More of an experience in the animal body that says, you are here. Sometimes this relationship is more viable than others, esp. if you live near mountains, rivers, oceans, gorges, even deserts. It's in nowhere suburbia than I feel the Kali Yuga is most about to bust apart at the seams...and living in the middle of agri-industrial farmland is weird. It's not suburbia. It's not elemental. It's just...flat. Somehow, though, it makes for a terrific location for writing.

Paul, Lanie, Janelle & I are toying around with the idea of moving to the same city two years from now. What else do you do when you're a vagabond well into your thirties? You start looking for a place to settle, but not just any place. Some place with your friends. And elements. And fireflies.

22 June 2009

More Mushroom Action

A short departure from the vacation photos: A few days ago, this bright yellow 'shroom sprang up in one of our potted houseplants. It lived a total of two days before 'shrooming back into the Nonexistence Place, ephemeral as lightning in a summer sky.

Yesterday we could be found in a kiddie pool in our front yard, grilling steaks and vegetables and listening to a Pablo Birdsong mix tape called "Maraton de Musica Lovena." A friend we made almost exactly one year ago, Allen, biked past our house, then came on up and joined us a while. I asked how he was feeling. He said, "So-so," but looked great. We didn't see him all winter or fall, but we picked right up where we left off.

"Can I ask where Stella is?" he said.

"Yeah, Allen, she's gone to the Nonexistence Place, but lately I've been dreaming about her and she seems to be doing well."

It's true. Last night a dream woman pointed at ancient pictographs as we floated by in canoes - "See that eagle? It's situated on the rock as if to suggest medicine for the people."

Later, after Allen's visit, and steaks, and bedtime for Bonzo, a tornado skirted Iowa City and sent sideways sheets of rain down onto creation while the weather sirens moaned like tiny-throated baby Leviathans in the night.

20 June 2009

Taino Neolithic

In St. Augustine, Florida, we stayed with Edie & Jorge, their kids, and Jorge's mother, visiting from Argentina. Much mate was consumed, and a Spanish fort or two was toured. I got to practice my Spanish and recalled fondly those summer days a few years back, in Puerto Rico, especially the mornings, when the igneous mountains, dripping with chlorophyll, seemed to vibrate a pure, ancient Taino neolithic promise of "everything's all right and will be, no matter what, but, of course, we must have stewards of what's right and true," and I casually accepted the job-offer as steward, knowing it was only my mind echoing off those hills, possibly some old Irish part of my subconscious, enemy of the colonial oppressor, lover of excess, and, word-drunk, scribbled in my notebook while the coffee percolated via safety-orange extension cord running like an electric eel through the plush philodendron.

19 June 2009

Auspicious Greens

During our vacation earlier this month, we tried to go canoeing but got rained out. Since we couldn't float the mighty Flint River, we knocked back a cold one and shot pool at the grimy old river outpost. Lightning popped all around us. We kept the jukebox fed on quarters. Merle Haggard, mostly.

After the rains died down, the proprietor of the outpost invited us into his home to look at the weather radar. More thunderheads were headed our way, and not wasting any time. (It was odd, actually. I could look out his window and see the front approaching over the mountain as the weatherman yammered on about it on satellite t.v.) "Y'all made a good decision, not goin' out there today," he said.

Earlier I had tried to convince Janelle that we should, in fact, brave the lightning and rain, since we are, in fact, hardcore and so rarely get a chance to float the Mighty Flint. This was the dumbest idea I've had in a while and I'm proud of Janelle for looking me in the eye and saying "No. Dumb idea. Let's play pool instead," while the proprietor laughed, shook his head and agreed with her.

The old guy had a small dog that came over to me all familiar and sweet. And there was a woman - his wife I'm guessing - frying squash, peeling squash, and steaming squash. ("Now that was a damn squash household" I later told Janelle.) The wife said, "Y'all like squash?"

Hell yeah we like squash.

So she invited us to stay for supper, which we didn't, but she and her husband wouldn't let us leave without taking us around back to their garden and giving us huge armfuls of kale, onion, collards, and squash to take home and stir fry. "It's all organic, too," the old guy said.

So no canoeing happened, but Janelle and I ate the auspicious greens of the open road...and they were delicious.

15 June 2009

Trail Mix & Death

Fatback, yellow treat, & yucca blooms - more images from Manchester.

A couple days ago, I unabashedly created what is, in my opinion, the best trail mix ever. The recipe:

* salted peanuts

* cashews

* pine nuts

* golden raisins

* peanut butter chips

Combine in ratios that best suit your predilections. Dorkily, I call this mix "Blonde On Blonde." Consume while reading, blogging, or napping.

Last night I dreamed that I was digging a deep grave in the woods. It wasn't clear, in the dream, for whom (or what) I was digging the grave. But it was rectangular, large in its perimeter, and deep. "This is a deep hole I've dug," I said to myself in the dream.

According to Irv Yalom's tenets of existential psychology, my psyche's occupied with my own existential death-concerns these days. And not just because of Stella's death (which, yeah), but also because I'm a father now. And because I've really sort of done everything I wanted to do in life. The question I sometimes pose myself is "How do you want to live out the remainder of your life, Jon-dog?" Serious business.

Of course, I can't handle too much death-rumination consciously, so it comes out in veiled ways - anxieties, odd tendencies, neurotic behaviors, themes in my writing, and, yes, dreams where I'm digging deep graves for no one in particular. My unconscious is saying to me, "Son, no amount of trail mix is gonna stop the reaper from a-creepin' - for you or anybody else. What you choose to do in the meantime's sort of The Question Royale."

14 June 2009

aka Hoggly Woggly

The aforementioned Piggly Wiggly, on Main Street, Manchester, Georgia. (Isn't it creepy how the pig is wearing a butcher's cap?)

13 June 2009

Electric Mushroom

This is a neon mushroom. I found it at the Manchester, Georgia Piggly Wiggly. It was suspended above the produce section. Up there above the actual mushrooms packed in cellophane, trucked in from who knows where. I fiddled with the effects on iPhoto to make the surroundings dark. You know, so the electric mushroom would "pop."

Neon is a rare noble gas occurring naturally in the air we breathe. It was discovered and isolated by a chemist in 1898, the same year that Lewis Carroll died and that New York City decided to know itself via the Five Boroughs.

Mushrooms, on the other hand, are enlightened aliens that came to planet earth long ago to make themselves of benefit to the human race. According to Terrance McKenna, psychoactive 'shrooms lifted a fledgling humanity up from stooping grunts and into the stratospheres of glossolalia, High Communication, and artistic thinking. The Piggly Wiggly in Manchester knows this. And, more importantly, represents.

12 June 2009


Images from Georgia.

Don't ask me why, but these images remind me, somehow, of a story that I told Janelle on our road trip. A story which I will now tell you.

A few years back, when I worked nights on the psychiatric unit at Athens Regional, I had to wear a pager. The reason I had to wear the pager was so that, in the event of a patient emergency elsewhere in the hospital, I could be paged as part of an "emergency assessment team." My role, as a clinician, was to represent and embody the "psychological health" aspects of a given situation. Often this meant crisis counseling right then and there, or a snap decision to try something else.

Once, I got called to Labor & Delivery to help with a new mother who suffered from schizophrenia. She wasn't speaking to the staff, her husband - no one. In the throes of post-partum psychosis, she was also completely refusing and ignoring her infant. The nurses wanted me to try and get her to talk, to acknowledge her baby. To do something. But she just stared back at me in full psychic retreat while a nurse nearby held her shrieking baby.

Another time, a WWII vet woke up in his bed after heart surgery and was disoriented, combative. I was eating my shift meal in the cafeteria when I got the call. With tartar sauce on my sleeve, I had to talk him down and get him back into bed while armed security guards stood nearby, fingering their billy clubs.

I was called into situations like this once or twice a week, always blindsighted, always a little traumatized. Whenever I'd try and talk to the other clinicians, nurses, or hospital staff about ways to improve the system, to support patients more fully, to support one another in such a high-anxiety atmosphere, I'd be met with defensiveness, sarcasm, or even outright anger. "Just stay present and do what you can do, Jon-Dog," I'd tell myself. But I'm more or less a sensitive introvert, so it should come as no surprise that, while I worked well under these pressures, in time, what developed was an intense pessimism and a lot of shock and horror in my heart. I drew cartoons and wrote intensely to deal with this. After two years of employment there, the psychiatric unit was liquidated altogether. And I can't help but wonder who - if anyone - is tending to those codes now...

Anyway, that's not the story. This is the story:

One night, right around the end of my shift, I got paged to a general medical floor. I grabbed my credentials (patients like seeing those) and took off. Turns out I was the first person to arrive on the scene. (The nurse who called the emergency in was working the floor alone and was swamped with other patients.)

I cautiously entered (always cautiously) to find myself face-to-face with a guy I'd scene many times before in the emergency room (for alcohol toxicity.) "Hey Sam. What happened here?" Now, Sam - he's standing in front of me, totally nude, his body full of scars, and blood sluicing from his genitals. His hands are dripping blood and he's got this look on his face like "I'm thirsty. What are you doing here?" I look down at the floor and see, now, that he's standing in a huge freaking pool of blood. And in the pool is a long, snaking tube and urinary catheter, which he'd ripped out. "J., man, I told that nurse I'm ready to go home, damnit! So y'all better let me go!"

Turns out Sam had been admitted earlier in the day for some medical reason (heart palpitations, I think it was) but because he was a severe alcoholic, delirium tremens had kicked in during the night. (the "dt's" are a deadly form of physical and psychological drug/alcohol withdrawal. Features of psychosis often accompany them.) Sam had woken up, needing a drink in the worst possible way. So he got up and scrambled for the door. But when he looked down and realized the nurses had inserted a tube into his cock, he hollered for them to take it out. They said "No, Sam! We need to you to lay back down, hon." So then Sam said "Fuck you" and yanked the catheter out his own damn self. And that's when the blood started to pour. I was paged approx. twenty seconds later.

I forget how it all played out. I was cool under pressure, as always. And I think Sam was discharged immediately. His doctor might have even given him a finsky so he could walk to the Discount Mart across the street and buy a cheap bottle of booze. This did happen from time to time. Fact is, my memory's flighty. Also, I saw so many strange, dark flickers of the human experience in that hospital that, now, they all just sort of meld together in a disordered catalog of suffering.

11 June 2009

Eleanor's Mee-maw's House

Afoot and light-hearted, I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me, leading wherever I choose.

Henceforth I ask not good-fortune—I myself am good fortune;
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Strong and content, I travel the open road.

The earth—that is sufficient;
I do not want the constellations any nearer;
I know they are very well where they are;
I know they suffice for those who belong to them.

(Still here I carry my old delicious burdens;
I carry them, men and women—I carry them with me wherever I go;
I swear it is impossible for me to get rid of them;
I am fill’d with them, and I will fill them in return.)

- from "Song Of The Open Road," by Walt Whitman

10 June 2009

Open Road

Two days ago, we returned to Iowa City after an eighteen day vacation (or "odyssey," as my man Paul has said, more accurately). During that eighteen days, Janelle, Eleanor & I visited friends and family in three different states - Illinois, Florida, & Georgia. We rambled. We scrambled. We rented a compact car and pushed its compact limits. Now we're back in the corn and it feels like my eyes have been removed from their sockets, scrubbed clean, and screwed back in. Nonetheless, Iowa is still Iowa. It's a yellow, windblown, drone. A bee minus a stinger. A tidy square of topsoil, submitted for Saturn's approval. And since Saturn's silent, I'll take the opportunity to post a series of vacation blogs & photos, beginning with this one - a view of the open road that runs right out front of my grandmother's house in Shiloh, Ga.