Empty Hands, Part Four – Survival of the Phattest
Even though freedom is instantly available, washing over you like a wave, it often takes time, more akin to water slowly eroding rock, in this case the bedrock of one’s conditioning. In showing up moment by moment as much as you can, you are spending time in the water. With each moment of full wakefulness, more conditioning and reactivity will wash away. – Arthur Jeon; City Dharma
The fools . . . the mad fools . . . – Ambassador de Sadesky in Dr. Strangelove, realizing that the Russians’ “Doomsday Machine” will be activated by the impending nuclear attack, thus destroying all human and animal life.
“Gee, I wish we had one of them ‘Doomsday Machines.’” – General Turgidson; Dr. Strangelove
Walking down a soot-stained, gum-pocked San Francisco sidewalk the other day, I passed someone’s discarded port-o-toilet—a white plastic bedpan affixed to an aluminum chair frame, like the ones they use in nursing homes or hospitals. Although it seemed relatively clean for what it was, it was still a disturbing sight, even amongst the rampant ugliness and insanity one encounters on a block to block basis in just about any major American city. You never quite get used to it. And you shouldn’t. You have to live your life, after all, and you can’t take every single encounter to heart. But you can’t go around being completely numb either.
Who the hell would leave such a thing on the sidewalk? What were they thinking as they carried it into to the street, as passersby watched them set it down? And since it was no longer there the next day, who had removed it? Did they plan on putting it to use themselves? As a flower pot, perhaps? Or was it taken to the dump and piled onto the mountains of garbage that will never stop growing as long as we humans are alive?
Whomever it had belonged to had either acquired a newer and better model, or no longer needed it. Or most likely, they had just died. Our bodies decay, our systems fail, and we devolve to a state where we can’t even make it from the bed to the actual toilet. Our flesh sinks into the soil, our spirit dissipates into unknown realms, and as a collective species, we leave behind huge scars in the planet and each other—whole ecosystems laid to waste, a choked up atmosphere, piles of non-biodegradable refuse.
Ah yes, we also leave a legacy of love and laughter and music and stories and knowledge, and perhaps that will be enough for our children to carry them through not being able to breathe without machinery or step into direct sunlight, or never knowing what actual fish tastes like, or wondering why we plundered every fossil fuel on the entire planet without first finding a suitable replacement.
I suppose it has to be. It’s almost undeniably too late to turn back.
We don’t need a Rapture from above to hasten in the End Times. Most of us know that. It could come quickly, with the push of a button. Or from the corruption of our “precious bodily fluids,” through a massive Communist water-fluoridation conspiracy, as imagined by General Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove. (My vote for the best movie ever.) But most likely it will emerge from the gradual (and then eventually not so gradual) results of our never-ending denial, ignorance, greed and savagery, which will inevitably get worse as everything else gets worse.
A genuine self-fulfilling prophecy.
At my old house in Russian Hill, there was a wooden staircase that wound down from our third story flat into the backyard, with a breathtaking 180 degree view of the Bay—from our neighborhood down into Chinatown and North Beach, Yerba Buena Island, Berkeley, Oakland, and poking up just over to the Southeast, the tip of the TransAmerica Pyramid. It was the perfect spot to spend at dusk, watching Coit Tower slowly turn various shades of gold and blue and pink; or a cool, sunny morning with coffee and a book.
On one such morning, while re-reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (yes, I am that masochistic), I looked up and saw the hummingbird perched on the tippiest-top branch of the neighbor’s hundred-year-old Chinese Plum tree. He came every day, to that very same branch. I always imagined that he was waiting endlessly at this special spot for some mate who never came, whom he had perhaps glimpsed once and fallen madly in love with, or had loved already and somehow lost and could not comprehend why she never came back. Indeed, my anthropomorphizing tendencies reached great heights with this little guy, but there really did seem to be something desperate and lonely about him, so tiny against the sprawling vista, so consistent in returning to his perch.
Well, on this day, I had been so engrossed in the relentlessly grim desolation of the novel, that looking up to see him there was a shock. Compared to the ashen wasteland I had been reading about, here I was, surrounded by an overwhelming bounty of life and beauty. We still have trees and birds and bees and caterpillars and fruit and drunken goat cheese and bourbon/corn flake ice cream and fucking free-range chicken; dandelions growing in wild tangles, scrabbling beetles, butterflies, raccoons, and one-eyed cats . . . Cars drift past, people walk innocently up the street, laughing, wondering, making plans, longing for love. The book in my hand is not good merely for kindling. Electricity crackles and hums on the massive grid all around us, clean water churns in the pipes, horns honk, jets sear the sky above. The distant, swirling bay, even though it is filled with every foul form of human sludge imaginable, teems with fish and plant life. The breeze carries the smells of baking bread and pollen and saltwater, and there is music somewhere far off, the sound and bustle of life . . .
I wanted to weep with relief. We are still here. We still have a chance. I looked around and took long breaths into my lungs and tried to savor the moment. But all epiphanies are fleeting. Time surges on mercilessly.
Last week the neighbors chopped down that plum tree. Termites, my old flat mate said. We both grumbled skeptically, but what the hell do I know about it? All I know is that the yard looks like a disaster area, and the skyline now seems barren and sad. Yes, it’s far from apocalyptic, but I can’t help thinking it’s a start. Nor can I help thinking of the poor little hummingbird. He’s probably not even still alive, but in my mind he’s hovering endlessly above the wreckage, wondering what happened to his glorious perch, realizing now that his waiting has been futile, and amidst the destruction deliberately waged by our kind, he’s finally lost his one shot at true love.
Molecules here on Earth first made the miraculous leap from inorganic to organic somewhere around three to four billion years ago, resulting in animate life as we know it. Chemical reactions occurring in the wonderfully named “Primordial Soup,” under very precise conditions, allowed molecular bonds to create amino acids, the so-called “building blocks” of DNA and proteins, and thusly, self-regenerating cells, which mulled around in their humble (yet still miraculous) singular state until relatively recently, when other circumstances allowed them to multiply together and form complex organisms. The most basic elements of life are a matrix of minerals, water, and gases (mostly Hydrogen, Oxygen, Carbon and Nitrogen). So, much like The Golem, we ourselves sprung from a kind of magical clay. Energy derived from these elements interacting, as well as the sun, created electrical impulses, which powered these life forms (not unlike Frankenstein’s Monster,) to evolve, reproduce, create systems of self-preservation and more efficient ways to absorb and use energy, and eventually, what we call consciousness.
Of course, it is still a source of controversy and mystery how exactly, and under what conditions, these reactions first took place. To some this mystery is even more basic and confounding, such as Bill O’ Reilly, with his medieval inability to conceive of what actually makes “the tides go out, the tides come in, the sun come up and the sun go down”; a deliberately cultivated ignorance that he somehow considers irrefutable proof of the existence of God. However, to anyone else with even a tiny bit of sense, this refrain of his merely furthers more doubt that a Biblical God could possibly exist, if really, someone like that idiotic fuckface and his minions are allowed to speak so freely for Him.
One of the current trends in astronomy that drives me up the wall, despite the fact that I know next to nothing and these people are pretty much all geniuses, is the tendency to theorize that every single major geological event that has occurred on earth since The Big Bang somehow came from outer space. Seriously. The moon came from a massive collision with another planet. The water in the oceans was delivered by comets. The elements of life itself were present on a meteorite. And of course we’ve all heard about the meteor that supposedly wiped out the dinosaurs.
Even if it is true, it just seems too easy. It’s like every time they can’t completely account for something, they say it came from Outer Space. They almost sound like a bunch of seething conspiracy theorists . . .
Dude, like Obama is totally an alien. I mean, come on. He’s all ultra-smart and all calm and like all these different colors at once. People like that don’t just become President . . .
Ahem . . . sorry. I, uh, digress.
Anyway, my point is that the largest geological force in millions of years is undeniably happening right here, right now.
It’s Us, folks. We are Evolution.
From that ancient boiling soup crawled a force of nature so bent on self-destruction that it does almost seem to have an air of divine inevitability. Hundreds of millions of species have disappeared from the planet since those first molecules sprang to life, but rarely at such an accelerated rate as now. The polar ice caps have existed in their recent form for 15 million years. By many estimates, they could be almost entirely gone by the end of this century. And you can’t un-invent nuclear weapons. Some fucking asshole, whether he’s worried about fluoridation or infidels or single-payer healthcare, is going to launch one. Maybe the “day after tomorrow,” or maybe 500 years from now. It’s still a relative drop in the cosmic bucket. Sorry to break it to you folks, but homo sapiens are not going to come anywhere even close to doubling our time here, which would mean another 500 thousand years. It doesn’t seem like a lot to ask, does it?
Well, sorry kids, Daddy spent the dole on Guinness and whiskey. But don’t worry, Mommy’ll get you a pig’s head for Christmas dinner. Yum.
Will the meek actually inherit the earth? It’s possible, I suppose, but unlikely. In The Road, only the most brutal and depraved motherfuckers survive, literally feeding off the rest—raping, enslaving and eating them. The exception is a handful of people, who, as the Father says “carry the flame.” And maybe that’s the point. If ten million assholes are wrong, you still have a responsibility to be the only one who is right.
Even when it seems there is nothing left to be right about.
If the meek ever inherit the earth, the strong will take it away from them. The weak exist to be devoured by the strong. – Marine Drill Sgt. Gerheim; The Short-Timers
After the cataclysmic firefight at the climax of Platoon, Pvt. Chris Taylor, the protagonist played by Charlie Sheen™, awakens in an eerily quiet jungle clearing. The first sight he sees is a deer, grazing in the sunlight nearby. It pays him little notice as he rises to his feet. Badly wounded but still in one piece, he limps cautiously through a twisted mass of corpses, all covered in a layer of powdery white ash from the all-out firebombing called in at the last second by the desperate CO. For a moment, despite the sprawl of horror and devastation, everything seems almost peaceful. Idyllic. Echoes of some snow-shrouded Garden of Eden, quietly rendered in 70 mm by the likes of, say, Terence Malick.
Yet, this is not Malick, but Oliver Stone, and there must be A Reckoning. Taylor stumbles on his nemesis, Sgt. Barnes, whom he last saw raising a blade to murder him just before the impact of the bombs prevented him from doing so. Barnes is terribly wounded and slowly crawling across the jungle floor. When he turns and sees Taylor standing above him, his M-16 in his face, he utters his last command with a sneer: “Do it.” It’s an order Taylor hesitates for only a mere second to follow. He plugs three shots into Barnes’ chest and the evil Iago is finally exterminated.
Surely, this is not the best movie about Vietnam, though it did receive Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director, as well as several other accolades, which, despite its apparent flaws, I still believe it deserved (and which as we all know, Charlie Sheen™ recently took credit for, despite . . . well, not winning any actual awards himself). It does lack the balls out, overwhelmingly epic, scenery chewing (and often obliterating) genius of Apocalypse Now (which lost the 1979 Best Picture to Kramer Vs. Kramer.)
And in direct contrast to Platoon’s blatantly unambiguous take on good and evil, Full Metal Jacket is borderline amoral in its cold, straightforward attempt to depict a genuine wartime experience. Kubrick claimed that his main goal for the narrative was to strip away any trace of anti or pro rhetoric (a goal all but non-existent in just about every other war movie ever made), and make a film about “war as phenomenon.” It was nominated for just a single Oscar in 1987, for Adapted Screenplay, which Kubrick co-wrote with Michael Herr, the author of Dispatches, and the guy who penned Captain Willard’s narration in Apocalypse Now. The book they adapted was Gustav Harsford’s Short Timers, which believe it or not, is even more psychotic than the film—though much of the script is lifted straight from the book. Unfortunately (and mostly unsurprisingly), Bernardo Bertolucci’s painfully unwatchable The Last Emperor swept most of the major awards that year, including Best Adapted Screenplay. And, unlike Platoon and Apocalypse Now, the film did not make AFI’s Top 100 Films Ever list—apparently not the caliber of Forrest Gump, Toy Story, Tootsie . . . or, well, Dr. Strangelove. (As an aside, if anyone can guess the top three, in no particular order, without looking them up, I’ll do a little jig and post it here in your honor . . . No cheating, this should be a cinch if you think about it.)
Gunnery Sergeant Hartman’s dialogue is legendary by now, and contains some of the most quotable bits of vitriolic humor in cinema history—sometimes almost Zen-Masterish in its logic-confounding insistence on what makes a true Marine. (Vietnam movies have a disproportionate amount of great lines – e.g. “I love the smell of Napalm in the morning . . . ” or “Ain’t nothin’ like a piece a pussy . . . except maybe the Indy 500!”) As we all know, actor and real-life Drill Sergeant R. Lee Ermey became a well-known celebrity for his singular persona (a bit like Ben Stein) and can most recently be seen, of all places, in the ubiquitous, nauseatingly self-congratulatory Geico commercials.
I’ve been watching a lot of these films lately, including The Deer Hunter and Taxi Driver and others, and have re-read parts of Dispatches, Short Timers, and The Things They Carried. It’s a subject I tend to immerse myself in every few years, usually when I’m in a rough patch and I need some perspective on what real hell is like. I’m a gigantic history nerd, and also prone to even the cheapest brands of nostalgia. Vietnam movies for my generation were like World War II movies for our parents, but instead of gleaming, unadulterated heroism, they were full of dark moralizing and intense self-reflection and shame and regret. The heroes were broken, crippled by their experiences, barely hanging on to anything but their M-16s and a head full of nightmares. Even the fairly uncomplicated right wing revenge plots, starring Stallone and Norris, which we spent whole Saturdays watching at the one kid’s house who had a VCR, gobbling Jiffy Pop and drinking Coke until we were sick, were soaked with pain and betrayal from all sides—by a corrupt, ungrateful government “with one hand tied around its balls,” and the dirty, spitting hippies and red-neck sheriffs back home (all somehow on the same team!!) who just did not understand . . .
Aside from our giddy, clueless twelve-year-old selves, I’m not absolutely sure who these less “artistic” movies were made for, but I picture chronically single, fat guys who tapped incessantly on their Apple IIc’s and owned a lot of guns and dressed like Walter from The Big Lebowski (who was based, by the way, on John Milius, the raspily-baritoned, testosterone-cranked writer of Apocalypse, director of Conan the Barbarian, and avid NRA member)—except these guys had infinitely less charm and wit.
Most Vietnam films fall into not only the “war is hell” category, but also the “hell is us” category, a reflection of the raging internal conflict, pervasive doubt and denial that has long accompanied that particular decade-long fiasco. In all three of the first films I mentioned, an American superior is murdered by a subordinate, with varying levels of complexity to the concept that, as Taylor ham-fistedly states in his final speech: “We were really fighting ourselves.”
On June 11, 1963, in the middle of a bustling Saigon intersection, right outside the Cambodian Embassy, Thích Quảng Đức, a 65-year-old Vietnamese Mahayanan Buddhist monk, seated himself in the lotus position, poured a five-gallon can of gasoline over himself, and lit a match. He instantly burst into flames, yet as Malcolm Browne’s famous Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph shows, he maintained perfect composure, looking almost serene as his body was consumed by fire. Several police were already standing nearby, as this was a planned protest by leaders of both Catholic and Buddhist organizations against the religious oppression carried out by American-supported President Diem’s government. The authorities tried to intervene, but the burning monk was surrounded by a circle of his followers, and they were kept at bay. Only one policeman broke through, and it is said that, as soon as he did, he immediately fell to his knees in reverence.
Although more than 300 similar self-immolations were recorded before and after, this is the most famous, partly because of Browne’s photograph, but also because of the massive spiritual reverberations it sent out and its widespread political impact. Hours after the incident, thousands of witnesses reported seeing the image of a weeping Buddha in the sky above the city. Later, Thích Quảng Đức’s body was re-cremated in a proper ritual, and his heart was found completely intact among the ashes. To many, this was an undeniable sign that he was a true bodhisattva. And the shockwaves that the act sent around the world led very quickly to drastic changes in the restrictive policies and the downfall of the Diem regime.
But then, of course, the brutal, American-led war was just beginning, and everything very quickly plunged into even more insanity and chaos . . .
We are all burning. The world is burning. And it is us lighting the match. As it seems inevitable, can we not expire with dignity and compassion and courage, with grace and humility and with the idea that there may someday be others who are forced to live among our ashes? Can our blackened heart survive the inferno, and if so, what then will it signify?
Will it be enough to “carry the flame?”
Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery. – Cormac McCarthy; The Road
(NEXT! Part 5 — Nirvana By Any Other Name)