BACK COUNTRY FAMILIES

Milt and Hup were very tight in that classic way of buddies that sometimes develops between men in combat.  They hadn’t been in combat together, but they both saw life as hostile and out to get them, so the feeling that they had each other’s backs was strong between them even though Milt was old enough to be Hup’s father but wasn’t.  Instead he was Hup’s father-in-law.

So Hup had married Milt’s daughter, Giselle, in order to have a formal, legal relationship to Milt.  He didn’t really love Giselle, but then he didn’t really love any other woman either.  The kid heard about all this with horror.  He’d gone to sleep behind the sofa where he’d been reading until his eyes got tired.  It was a good place to lie on his stomach where people wouldn’t step on him or spot him and think of something for him to do.  His mother was confronting his Aunt Theda, Hup’s sister so Milt’s daughter.  The two of them were shouting in a rage, but not quite at each other — rather at the injustice of life that refused to obey any kind of proper order.

“You know it’s true, Giselle.  It’s like my dad just gave you to Hup, his possession — men own women.  It in the goddamn wedding vows.”

“It’s perverse.  It shouldn’t be.  I’ll leave him.”

“You can’t.  You have no money, you have no skills, you have no close friends to help you.  You are trapped, honey, and I can’t help you because I’m in the same situation.  That’s the way it is here in this back country.”

The kid hadn’t thought of this as “back country.”  To him it was the center of the universe, it was home, there was no other conceivable place.  Neither could he understand why it was wrong for two men to love each other, two men he also loved in the world.  The only man he loved more was his father’s father, Papop.  Milt and Hup were subsistence hunters because that was how one survived in this rural place, but Papop was a fisherman and since the farm was bordered on one side by a river, he and the kid would walk down together and almost always return with a stringer of fish.  He didn’t even mind cleaning them.  It wasn’t like the bloody sad work of gutting animals.

The men of the farm were a fierce lot, knotted up with the necessity of work and the danger of not calculating some kind of risk, whether from the prices or from weather.  They didn’t keep many animals, so there wasn’t so much risk from bulls or boars.  They WERE the bulls and boars.  They called the women “hens,” and roosters made them laugh, esp. when the feathered ruffians fought for dominance.

Very rarely did the men take the kid hunting.  They said he was noisy and couldn’t think like a deer.  But they were wrong.  He often practised following the vague deer trails around the farm, through the woodlot and the undeveloped land beyond their boundaries.  When he glimpsed an animal, he slipped along behind it, watching to learn what it did, not intending to interfere.

He was even better at understanding fish.  It may have been because he was an excellent swimmer, but somehow he understood water, its dynamics and power.  He could imagine hanging in a quiet spot behind a boulder or along the bank, but he also sensed the rush of narrow places and waterfalls.  He liked “rush”.  When he grew older, it would become a problem, a drug problem.

But now he just loved most going with Papop on his canoe, floating quietly along through the sun-dappled river under the arching trees and not even saying anything, because fish can hear, you know.  It was the walk back to the house when they could talk.  “Papop, did Grandpa Milt really give my mother to Hup?

“Well, that’s the way it’s been done for centuries, boy.  And then she gave you to him!”

“Does it mean Hup loves Grandpa Milt more than my mom?”

Papop had a pretty good idea where the kid got this idea.  Those damned women were always fomenting discord, always trying to grab attention by confronting.  Why couldn’t they just bake pies, get a little praise for it, go to church?

“There are different kinds of love.”  The kid could never get much more out of Papop.  He could feel that there was a whole lot more to be said.

“If Milt owns me because he’s my father, do you own Milt?”

Papop laughed bitterly, but he wouldn’t answer.  Then they were back at the house, almost late for supper.  At the last minute Papop muttered, “Nobody owns Hup.”

None of the men was much good at vegetable gardening.  The women refused to do it.  They wouldn’t even grow flower borders.  So the kid got to do the honors.  Hup did the basic digging and planting, but then he handed the kid a hoe.  “Keep it sharp,” he said.

So the kid did until he accidentally chopped his foot — not very seriously, but it infected and made him limp for weeks.  Papop showed him how to soak it in a bucket of salt water.  Hup said the kid’s limp was psychological, to get out of work.  Milt agreed that work was everything, work was survival, work was food.  They told the kid to stop dreaming and pay attention.  The women stayed out of it.

The kid certainly was a dreamer.  Even his school teachers said so.  They didn’t know that the storm of attempted sorting in his head over the women’s family quarrels and the men’s tough attitude about “manliness” was sometimes making him almost deaf and blind.  He went to the library and read books, because it almost helped.  He read Hemingway which did help and tried Faulkner, which didn’t.  He didn’t know about Steinbeck.  Then one day he found Whitman.  He had found his heart.  The others didn’t matter now.

Even when his aunt and mother had another fight over whether or not he might be gay, he didn’t care.  The poetry of Whitman sang in him through every fiber and breath.

When his Papop died in his sleep (heart) the dynamics of the farm life were irrevocably changed along with the inheritances because now Hup owned the farm.  None of them had realized how Papop’s quiet presence had been a calming and a constraint on these two belligerent men.  Hup had never dared smack his wife and son around until Papop was gone.  Milt pretended he didn’t know.

The kid, who was growing quickly by now, heard his mother screaming one last time, took his fishing rod, and his Whitman book, and left in Papop’s canoe.  Teach a boy to fish, and he can feed himself.  Of course, the rivers were clean in those days.  But there are always men who read “Leaves of Grass” and he found them.

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CONVERSATIONS WITH TWO MEN

My usefulness as a counselor is pretty limited.  I listen carefully and am a pretty good analyst, but when it comes to the part where you’re supposed to give advice, I never have any idea what they should do.  At least no idea any better than their own notion of what action to take, if any.  Actually, sometimes I do, but it’s usually pretty harsh.  Most people are not looking for more pain.  They just want to be heard.

But I do have a little niche, which is as a sort of confessor/ confidante for a certain kind of man.  They never see me as sexy, which may be a qualification, and they don’t want me to tell them what to do.  They just want me to listen carefully enough to understand.  It has something to do with the fourteen-year-old boy in me, who really wants to know these things.  Even in high school when I was actually fourteen, real fourteen-year-old boys wanted to tell me things about themselves.  In college it was often via letters — one roommate had had a nerdy friend in high school who went to a different university and he and I wrote back and forth for a couple of years, mostly about sex — you might suspect we were both nerdy virgins.

After I became a minister, it was a vocational duty, but I soon learned to avoid women who came with bad motives, like trying to intimidate me with their pasts or to ferret out secrets about my own past.  The men treated me like an equal.  They just wanted to tell me things quietly.  No brags, no anger, sometimes rueful regret.

Twice, men told me about finding their ex-wives dead, eerily echoing each other though they didn’t know each other.  They had divorced late in life, after the kids were all raised and having their own kids.  The wives had not asked for divorce but didn’t really fight it either.  In fact, I had spent time with one couple, working out the reasons, the sensible way to separate, and a kind of description of the future.  Both women accepted support and the men didn’t promise anything beyond the legal agreement, but in fact were pretty conscientious about stopping by now and then to make sure everything was all right.  Often they left more money.  They seemed to become something like siblings.

One couple had sons, who also stopped by, and the other had daughters, who did not.  I think the difference was not in their personalities, but in the social gender roles in which the males were still made to feel responsible but the females thought women could cope on their own.  They were not comfortable when their fathers found other women.  Their mothers didn’t date.  They were generous babysitters.

In the end, one woman’s friends from her church called the ex-husband one Sunday morning to say she hadn’t showed up, which was unlike her, esp. since there was a meeting she chaired.  She wasn’t answering the phone.  They were thinking her car might have failed, so she would need a ride.  The man went to her apartment where the super, who knew him, let him in — just unlocked the door but didn’t stay.  The ex called out and got no answer.  When he went to the bedroom, there she was, on her back, naked and wet, with a towel in her hand.  He said she looked like the girl he had married, all lines erased, slightly smiling.  She still had her figure.  Her doctor said a heart attack when emerging from the shower, a sudden death that tipped her over onto the bed.  The doc said she’d known it was possible but hadn’t told her ex-husband.

The other man wasn’t called close to the time of death.  His wife lived in a trailer and the neighbors became concerned when they didn’t see her for a few days.  She had begun to drink a few beers in the evening — actually, they had always been people who had a few drinks with dinner.  He had to wrench and jimmy to get the door open.  She was sitting in front of the television set, which buzzed away as though her eyes were still seeing the picture.  He half thought that when he switched off the television, it would cause her to be living again.  There was no real diagnosis.

Neither man wept as they spoke to me.  Probably they shed more tears at the time of the divorce.  The reactions of their children had been various, each according to his or her temperament, more about them than about the marriages of their parents, but neither set of sibs had really known much about the parental relationship.  Didn’t know their fathers very well because of them working so much, and focused so much on escaping their mother’s expectations that they didn’t know them much either.

Which was a shame, because the two pairs were charming, intelligent people who had begun their families with real joy and competence.  Somehow the world changed and that changed their relationships.  Now the new sexual code would have allowed all of them to seek adventures.  The men wanted to, but the women didn’t.  The men had tried to be honorable, ending their marriage before looking around.  They never did meet each other, though I was friends with both.  Neither was in my congregation.  One was a breakfast buddy.  The other often volunteered to drive me when I went to a conference in another town so we’d have a chance to talk in the car.  He’d explore that town and pick me up afterwards.  No one ever suspected me of having affairs with these men and I didn’t.

One would think that there might be some difference between the two men.  Maybe one was more inclined to use Viagra than the other, but both were genuinely looking for intimacy and personality — not just sex.  We didn’t talk about sex.  They didn’t seem to feel guilty, but rather groping for some understanding about what a human life really means in the end when we can die so suddenly — just be gone.  They did feel a little relieved about no longer having a kind of undefined financial responsibility.  One wife had asked to be cremated and scattered.  The other had a proper funeral in her own church.

By the time these men died, I had moved to a different city half across the country.  Someone sent me a clipping of the newspaper obituary for one.  I didn’t know until years later that the other had died.  The conversations I had with them — actually, me only listening — come back to me at unexpected times.  The issues remain unresolved.  Unresolvable.  I’ve never talked about them until now.

TWO VERSIONS OF THE SAME THING

William Schulz:  “Liberalism in Theory and Praxis”, the title of a speech, appears to be the source of the following notes in the pile of stuff I’m sorting, but when I googled, this is what I got: https://wikileaks.org/podesta-emails/fileid/48374/13442   The content was Schulz’s vita.  Very mysterious and suggestive.  You don’t need his vita.

He’s a UUA leader, quite charismatic, sometimes a bit Luciferan exp. around women.  Called me at 3AM once when I was circuit-riding in Montana to see whether Alan Deale was thinking of running for president of the UUA.  Luckily for him, it was the one day a week I slept in my apartment instead of my van.  Unluckily, I was not as much of a confidante of Deale as Schulz thought.  I didn’t know.

Anyway, wherever the notes came from, here they are:

The challenge of the 21st century will be to redefine liberalism and humanism in light of the discoveries of “new physics.”  We must accept the totality and the indivisibility of the universe, and abandon the demand of the human ego to somehow be special or separated from the rest of the cosmos.

5 new UU affirmations

1.The wonders of the cosmos outspill every category into which we try to fill them.

2.  The cosmos is all of one piece.

3.  The future is in human hands, but only a global consciousness will do.

4.  Only the earth itself deserves our loyalty.

5.  The gracious is available to every one of us disguised in the simple and mundane.

Instead of commenting, I’m going to summon up a little story.

_______________________

A small campfire burned on the high SW desert ridge.  An old man hunched on a camp stool.  His beard was trimmed but his white wavy hair was long and pulled back into something like a bun.  The fire sighed and shifted as though it were alive.  The two young men, old enough to drive but not to vote in some states, watched it almost suspiciously.  They were city boys, suspecting it would jump up and run away through the pinon and juniper.

One boy was teaching himself how to play a kazoo, a plastic toy, really.  Some people might think it was a drug pipe of some kind, but it was innocent as paper wrapped around a comb.  The other boy was smoking Marlboros, thinking about cowboys, and the threat of cancer was minor compared to all the other dreads and dooms of his life.  Infections, traumas, and intermittent moments of ecstasy and glee, many of them sexual.  Sometimes monetary.

He addressed the old man, who often talked about death these days, maybe self-immolation, something dramatic that would make a point, take a stand in a meaningless world.  “You SAID this would be a remote place, but WTF!!”

They were looking from so high and far, through air so thin and cold, that they could see the horizon curve, just bending a little bit, gracefully.  All three were acutely aware — because they liked sand war movies — that satellites could focus in on them, pick up not just the light of the campfire but even the glow on the end of the cigarette.  They could at least be recorded but probably not bombed by a predator drone because the cost to benefit damage just wouldn’t compute.  Still, it made a nice edge to awareness.

In the dust near the fire the two dogs groaned and turned over a bit.  They loved the campfire heat.  And it had been an exciting day, a lot to dream out into sense memories — the smells alone…

“Are we all gonna sleep in the jeep tonight?” asked the kazoo man.

“I am,” said Mr. Marlboro.  “I’m afraid of snakes.”

“We’re too high for snakes,” murmured the old man.  “Might be visited by a cougar.”  He grinned.  The boys exchanged looks.  Then they relaxed a bit — the dogs.

When they got closer to sleeping, the youngsters went to the edge of the ridge and made high amber arcs out into space for a surprisingly long time.  The old man didn’t join them.  He didn’t like comparisons, but the two young ‘uns were happy rivals to each other.  The acrid smell of male urine joined all the other pungencies of the smoke-laden air.  When they climbed into the jeep, the springs bounced for a while.

Arranged in his bedding, he smiled.  The tracking satellites intercepted the single stars and the Milky Way and he thought back to other times he’d visited this place on some vision quest or need for whatever it was he found here.  The first time, it was he who was the boy, but he carried a harmonica in his pocket and had known how to play it since he was almost a baby.  He could chord and phrase in a way that made the ladies cry.

As if he cared.  Ladies always find something to cry about.  But he always had a dog and the dog always liked the harmonica, sometimes sang along with it, sometimes between the two of them calling in the coyotes, but never a wolf.  He would have liked to have heard a wolf out there in the silver-lined darkness, but that early time he and his old man were on horseback, so it was just as well.

He wouldn’t sleep tonight, not use the flask of whiskey.  He’d doze rocking along in the back of the Jeep while the boys argued their way down off the ridge and on to the next destination, which was the Pacific Ocean.  They’d never seen it.  Poor deprived kids.  He’d show them he still knew how to body surf.

He’d been reading physics lately, different from the kind of physics he knew in university, which was so solid and clear.  Now it was practically religion, full of images of ambiguity, but somehow reassuring — always changing but never ending, even if you got impatient and gripped Time to tie a final knot in it.  The dogs, now that the fire had died down, came over to sleep against him, one on each side.  He turned onto his side so one could have his back and threw his arm gently over the other one.  Their tails wagged for a moment and then they went back to sleep.