Monday, October 17, 2011

A Birthday With Bukowski

Tomorrow is my birthday.  I'll be 43.  And since I'll be on the road most of the day, I thought I'd blog about it today.

It's been an odd and difficult year--two years, actually--if you think about the fact that my mom died in March of 2010.

I learned a lot about life and what it does and what if offers and how you can respond. 

You can always blame someone else.  Nothing new there.

Or you can learn something new, about yourself and other people. 

What was really driven home to me in all of that is, it's just as easy--if not easier--to treat people well.  If you have--as one guy once put it to me (with a chuckle, unfortunately)--"a long history of treating women badly," you'll end up living out that legacy. 

People don't forget.

Women always have fathers and brothers and sons and husbands, as well as sisters and friends and cousins, so even if you think the damage is limited, you're always making a lot of people quite angry, when you treat someone badly. 

And they quietly watch and wait.  Most of the time, people won't openly take a stand against someone that they feel is behaving badly.  They don't like to get involved. 

But when they see a chance, they remember what happened and they speak and they act, quietly.

That was what stood out to me in my own experience this year: how many men will quietly approach and tell their wives to warn a woman they like and respect that a guy isn't all he's pretending to be.

And everyone has a story, it seems.  When it hits the fan, that's what comes out: all of the stories from years ago.  People want you to realize that you're not wrong, that what happened to you has happened to them.

It's how community is forged, through collective support.  In good times, but especially in bad.

I think of my favorite scene in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (a scene I actually wrote about, years ago). For years, Jason Compson has been sneaking around, confiscating money his sister sends him for the care of her daughter and pretending to reject the money outright, to honor his mother's wishes.

He pretends to be a dutiful brother and son, but outside of the home (and inside of it too, as it turns out), he's actually a bully and a loud-mouth. 

And everyone knows it: his family has lived in the same town all of their lives.  Everyone knows everyone.

Jason thinks women are fools.  He thinks he can do what he wants and treat them however he pleases.   He thinks he's entitled, because he's "the man" of the family.  His life didn't work out the way it should have: in his opinion, everyone else took what was supposed to be his.  He was deserving, they were not.  Life isn't fair and he has a right to be angry. 

His narrative is a litany of bitterness and scorn and blame.

Faulkner ultimately sends Jason on a wild goose chase and drags him through the mud--and a huge patch of poison ivy (my favorite moment).  When his teenaged niece meets a man, she steals the money her mother has been sending Jason and runs off.

Jason calls the sheriff, determined to have her found and arrested:  "Jason told him, his sense of injury and impotence feeding upon its own sound, so that after a time he forgot his haste in the violent cumulation of his self justification and his outrage" (378).

But instead, the sheriff simply listens to Jason's rant and then asks a series of questions.  He offers a string of quiet observations: "But you don't know they done it.  You just think so", and "What were you doing with three thousand dollars hid in the house?" and "Did your mother know you had that much on the place?" and "What do you aim to do with that girl, if you catch them?" (378-379).

When Jason angrily insists that "How I conduct my family is no business of yours," the sheriff notes, "You drove her away from home... And I have some suspicions about who that money belongs to that I don't reckon I'll ever know for certain." (379-380).

Although the law is theoretically on Jason's side, the sheriff turns Jason's years of self-vindication and angry insistence on "proof" against him, in the end.  He has treated everyone around him like crap (to put it mildly), and he's done so for years.

Now they won't help him.  When the chips are down, they refuse to back him.  They pretend they don't see.

They remember.  So they help his niece, simply by doing nothing to help him.

When Jason finally realizes, "You're not going to make any effort to catch them for me?", the sheriff comments, "That's not any of my business, Jason. If you had any actual proof.  I'd have to act.  But without that I dont figger its any of my business" (380).

Jason has spent his life taking everyone's inventory but his own and angrily telling the people around him that they should mind their own business. 

So, in the end, they do.

In my own case, out of a drama that might so easily have led to a legacy of serious male-bashing and vindictive and snarky cat-fighting, I can only say that, at the end of the day, I like people. 

They're Faulkner's sheriff, more often than not.

There's always more to someone than meets the eye.  If you use people for your own advantage, you end up forgetting that because eventually you get to the point where you see only what is useful to yourself. 

You forget what's beneath the surface.

It's in that spirit that I found this poem for my birthday.  Somewhat ironically, it's by Charles Bukowski, with whom I'm quite certain I would have had serious issues, were we ever to attempt to speak to one another.  And he certainly wasn't the most upbeat or people-friendly of poets.

Or was he?  Luckily, he wrote poetry, so that we can always think and wonder and admire.

"Poem for My 43rd Birthday"
To end up alone
in a tomb of a room
without cigarettes
or wine--
just a lightbulb
and a potbelly,
and glad to have
the room. the morning
they're out there
making money:
judges, carpenters,
plumbers, doctors,
newsboys, policemen,
barbers, carwashers,
dentists, florists,
waitresses, cooks,
and you turn over
to your left side
to get the sun
on your back
and out
of your eyes.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."