Saturday, January 28, 2012

Glory Days

At the recent memorial of our fallen comrade Dan Peper, I was struck by a curious thought: “this is a community that I will probably really miss someday”.

It’s not like I’m planning on going anywhere...especially since I really just arrived here...but when one lives with the notion of impermanence as a cornerstone of one’s waking consciousness, the phrase “these things too shall pass away” enters ones head whether the things in question are pleasant and joyful or horrific and torturous. Whatever happens in our little slice of heaven on Earth, it shall someday be dust. That is the nature of life on the physical plane: all is change. Days flutter by as they become years, loves come and go, we all get older, perhaps know the drill. Every present moment becomes the stuff of future memory.

As I wandered amongst the crowd after the service I made the observation that there were at least twenty or thirty people gathered that I already felt a great deal of love for, and that like Dan, they too would someday make their exit from my life...unless, of course, I beat them to it.

I also thought of the term “glory days”. It’s kind of a cheesy phrase, and the title of one of Bruce Springsteens lesser works (I ordinarily like his lyrics, but I really hate that song), but it fits: here is an exceptional community full of exceptional people doing exceptional things. As someone who has bounced around a fair amount geographically, I can say that I consider it a rare thing...and a thing of beauty, in fact. One of those things that you want to keep going and keep contributing to, even when that thing is buffeted by such a significant loss...or even more, BECAUSE of it...because you see the fragility of these rare and beautiful things.

The older you get, the more time it seems that you spend ruminating upon the memories of the path you have left behind you. It is an act that can either be futile or instructive, largely depending on how ready you are to learn your lessons and not repeat your mistakes. I confess to be a mixed bag in this regard, myself.

Glory days: You find yourself in the midst of such a thing when you stop reminiscing and waxing nostalgic and actually LIVING. I have noticed since I moved here that I have been doing a fair amount of that, that whole “living” thing. I have become engaged, no longer just the aloof observer with the ironic detachment fixation. The Driftless region has breathed new life into my cynical soul. I smile a lot more out here, despite a couple initial setbacks and missteps.

This region seems to be a place to make NEW memories. If I live to a ripe old age, I picture droning on and on about this place to an impatient nurse who just wants to change my catheter and get on with his/her life:

“In my mid-forties I lived in this magical place where I met some of the most brilliant, gifted, and caring people you’d ever want to meet”.

“Yeah OK, whatever.”

“No, was full of artists and writers and musicians and eco-warriors and hippies old and young.”

“What’s a hippie?”

One of the things that has haunted me my entire life, that I’m sure at least a few of you reading this can relate to is this: I am an outsider. I have been such for almost my entire life. I say almost, because there have been times where I actually have felt the warm embrace of something resembling community, despite the fact that most of the time I feel (and sometimes act) like I just got thrown out of a UFO.

When I was all of about 15 I read the book Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse. It was so profoundly impacting to my alienated adolescent mind that the second half of my stage name (Ludi) is an homage to that very author (my real last name is unpronounceable in any human language). Heretofore, I had thought that I was the only person who ever felt so estranged from this world. To march to the beat of your own drummer is a risky proposition...but if you are to be true to yourself you have to, if that is what the voice of conscience and intuition dictates. I dared to be just who I was and suffered slings, arrows, rotten fruit, and expletives galore. That which does not kill you...

Part of the issue was my wholly inappropriate and generally ill-timed asking of “The Big Questions”. As it turns out, most people are not all that concerned about trying to understand the meaning of life. That seems to be a distant concern at best, way behind the foremost concern of buying lots of things one does not need with money one does not have. Sadly, as the global wealth pool shrinks down to a dismal bit of nothing I kind of doubt that there will be a run on philosophy futures, but I could be wrong...I am wrong at least several times a day, so I am practiced enough in it not to take it too personally.

Here and there along the way I would find individuals who would be of a similar bent to mine. That was like manna from heaven: “Oh, you THINK too? Can we be friends?”. And every so often I would encounter a subset of a subgroup of a subcultural subspecies who managed to coalesce for some scant amount of time to meet in dark clubs or darker parties and spout existential poetry or quotes from Alan Watts or Robert Anton Wilson at each other while keeping an eye out for the “normals” who would invariably try to crash the scene as they wanted to be amused by the “weirdos”, as if we were some exotic exhibit in the reptile house of the local zoo. If they talked about football teams or said the word “brewski”, it was time to scatter and scuttle away like the cultural cockroaches many of us felt like we were at times. (In fact, when I lived in Minneapolis I hung out for a couple years with a community of aging goths and glam-punks and we called ourselves by that very name. It was a badge of honor.)

Viroqua and its environs seems to be a place where outsiders gather, in a lot of ways held together by the common theme of revulsion and repugnance at a dominant culture that seems entirely bent on destroying the very planet that we all live on. The dark side of human nature that seems to be so manifest in our collective suicidal impulse to consume everything in our path appears to have a far less intense grip here. We seem to live in a vortex of sanity...if sanity is to be measured by having the trait of not wanting to die gasping in the effluence of a cesspool the size of an entire planet.

“Why the hell do you want to take care of the environment? Are you some kinda socialist or something?” That seems to be the constant refrain of a regrettably large segment of the population our little vortex is surrounded by, and as the peril of ecocide grows larger, that drone gets louder. “Drill, baby, drill!” “Fraking is eco-friendly!” “Eat your hydrogenated corn syrup and be happy, you stupid peasants!”

Whether we are drawn here by the politics, the metaphysics, or the need to not be packed into a rented high rise like so many larvae, there is a set of principals that we either arrive here with or that slowly insinuates itself into our ethical cores. At it’s center seems to be the notion that we are all connected, that what I do either indirectly or directly affects YOU and vice versa, so we should probably not do terrible things to each other or the environment in which we all live. It seems an obvious thing...common sense really, but it’s amazing how we have created an entire culture that seems to operate on a diametrically opposed set of notions.

One of the observations I have verbalized to various people I have met here is that I think it is entirely possible that we could build a Great Wall of the Kickapoo Valley around several counties and be able to survive in a sustainable way...which is not something that I can say for pretty much anywhere else I have lived...or even visited. Granted, I would miss things like oranges and bananas, but I almost think it could work. Unfortunately, the insanity of the dominant culture would still find ways of spewing its toxins and radiation over and under such a wall, but it’s only a thought experiment after all.

When I think of a similar wall being built around the city where I lived prior to July 1st, Chicago, I think of this tiny little community vegetable garden I volunteered at. It was a sweet little piece of land that grew enough to feed probably one entire human being for approximately three months. It was also a rare thing and a beautiful thing in its own right. The people who created it seemed to do it more for public education than productivity. Large segments of people living in that city seem to be oblivious to how food actually HAPPENS. I was lucky in that I had a rural Grandfather who took great glee in sending me out to his three acres of vegetables to work the fields when I would visit in the summers, otherwise I would probably be just as dumbfounded by the sight of a squash as more than a few of the student volunteers were when a local school would fling them our way.

Such a wall would not be a good thing for Chicago, not under the current management and the current paradigm, at any rate...nor would it really be a good thing for our community either: we have some lessons to give to the rest of the world, once the rest of the world has finally found the current model wanting. Hopefully that day will come sooner rather than later.

And wouldn’t that be just delightful? That a relatively small enclave of outsiders, people at odds with the common culture, could be the people that prove by example that one can have a life of abundance and joy by learning how to work WITH nature...and each opposed to trying to DOMINATE it...and each other? Wouldn’t that be something?

Yeah, I know...dream on. There are worse dreams to have though, and it seems that there are many people with dreams here...dreams of a better future than the past we are leaving behind.

We lost one of the people who was able to take the stuff of dreams and fabricate them into his very own reality...and further, was able to teach people how to do such things as well. That is a great loss accompanied by a great sadness, but at least we still have the dreams, and the ideas, and the skills. Those remain, and so does the community that can take those dreams, ideas, and skills and build wonders out of them.

And I hope we continue to do so. I really want to annoy that nurse someday.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Brother Raccoon: Wisdom Teacher, Pest.

Rushed, annoyed, and feeling justifiably insecure and irritable about an increasingly perplexing romantic relationship...that was how I felt on the morning that I encountered one of the most profoundly affecting animals that I have ever conversed with during my tenure in Tickville, Wisconsin.

I parked my van at the entrance by the highway and walked the 600 ft uphill to the has been my habit since winter came slowly trudging into the Driftless Region, laconically throwing just enough snow down from the heavens to make driving up my eroding easement a white-knuckle experiment in terror each time I was foolish enough to attempt it. I likewise trudged, feeling my age, muttering various practice conversations with my soon-to-be-former girlfriend under my breath (doesn’t everyone do this?), until I became aware of a large dark lump about 100ft ahead on the road...a dark lump that gradually took the form of an adult raccoon as I approached it.

(This was not a mistake in perception or a hallucination or one of those “reality shifts” that I drone on about to anyone careless or indulgent enough to listen...this WAS an actual raccoon...however, the verbal dialog that follows between myself and the raccoon is a complete and utter lie.)

The lump stared at me as I approached, not at all moved by my presence. It shifted slightly on its haunches, as if to be better positioned for the inevitable conflict.

I let out a yell. Nothing.

I jingled my keys at it (it used to work on my cat). Nothing.

I picked up a small stone and threw it. The stone mysteriously fell exactly in front of the creature and bounced exactly over it.

I then did what any city person would do...I called my now-non-girlfriend (a country person) and then a local friend (a city-turned-country person). Their advice was indispensable: walk around it.

I made the attempt, walking into the leaf litter that I try to avoid as that is where the dreaded ticks call home.

“This could play out badly for you, human.”

“Huh?!? What?!? Did you just speak?”

“Of course I you see anyone else out here?”

“’re a raccoon.”

“Yes, I am...and you’re an idiot...but I am not currently holding that against you...yet.”

“Raccoons can’t speak!”

“That would appear to be a false assumption if you have any respect for empiricism, would it not? For the record, I am still holding on to my “idiot” classification for YOU, until such time as you prove otherwise.”

“Wait...are you some kind of shamanistic power animal or something like that?”

“No...I am a raccoon.”

I stood mute for a while, trying to come to terms with the situation. Here was a raccoon speaking in an actual voice, not some sort of telepathic communication. Its tiny little lips were moving. From time to time it leered at me. The latter behavior was doing nothing for my then challenged level of self-confidence.

“ is not normal.”

“Really? And you are the sole arbiter of what is normal? YOU?!? When have you said, done, or even eaten anything that was normal recently, hmmmm?”

“I guess you have a point there.”

“Are we going to persist in this mindless small talk, human, or are you going to ask me a question?”

“A question? What? Is that what this is...I ask you three questions or something? Do I get turned into stone or sent to hell if I ask the wrong thing?”

The raccoon snorted derisively and then rolled his eyes, the effect of which was irresistibly cute despite the surreality of the situation. I then did exactly what I shouldn’t have...I involuntarily said: “awwwww.”

“I should eat your eyeballs for that, two-legs. Ask a question or I will relieve you of the majority of your face.”

“ you a REAL raccoon?”

“Yes, at present.”

“So normally are you are something other than a raccoon?”

“Something other than a raccoon is a classification that includes the rest of the multi-verse in its may want to be a bit more specific, or just drop this line of questioning as it is not going to be of any benefit to you whatsoever.”

“So you are here to be of a benefit to me?”

“Considering that your road does not have any berries or small fish or garbage on it, and that is normally what raccoons do for a living...that may be a reasonable assumption. There is obviously not much I can gain from this encounter except for a tasty piece of your ear.”

“I see”, I said, not really seeing, “ you represent something...something that is NOT a raccoon?”

I thought this might be pushing the obviously cantankerous animal a little too far. I worried about my various appendages, balling my musicians fingers into fists and casting a wry glance downwards towards my pants.

The raccoon yawned and stretched. I thought about what he could possibly symbolize. For the most part, things were reasonable in my life, I was working on new music, making lots of interesting friends, starting to put a business plan was mostly good, but then there WAS the confusing and progressively dysfunctional relationship and a sense that I was repeating a lot of the same old patterns in a whole new environment.

That has always been a theme for me, to the point where at times I would see myself and everyone around me as little more than walking bags of patterns. Patterns formed from as early as the womb (and probably before) that repeat until you find yourself looking in the mirror at some middle-aged stranger and thinking “well...he LOOKS like a grownup...why doesn’t he actually FEEL like one...or act like one?”

The patterns repeat endlessly in our lives and, by extension, macrocosmically in the greater world: wars are the quarrels of lovers writ large. As below, so above.

As I mused, the raccoon stared intently at me, waiting for just the right moment when my lack of attentiveness to my immediate surroundings would cause me to jump just high enough to dump my entire travel mug of coffee on my pants when he let out a sudden scream.

Which he did. After which, he laughed so hard that I thought he would explode. The whole routine was almost cartoonish: holding his hairy little sides, rubbing his beady tearing eyes with his almost human-like paws.

“Oh God...oooooooh god! That was priceless...priceless! HAHAHAHAHAHAHA.”

I stood there with coffee running down the bottoms of my pant legs onto my boots, staring at a giggling raccoon lying on his stomach beating his paws on the ground.

“Ok now...fine! Fine! I said FIIIIIIINE!”

It was the raccoons turn to be startled. He stopped laughing and gave me an appraising look: “well, look at that...little Johnny just grew a pair. Seems you actually have limits as to how much you’ll put up with. Nice to see. Maybe you should think about applying a bit of that to some other areas of your life that are bothering you right now.”

This time my surprise was caffeine-free, as this was the first marginally non-caustic comment the raccoon had made thus far. It almost sounded like a compliment...and advice.

That brief respite from having my dignity assaulted was abruptly terminated when he then said “alright, look you putz...yes, I DO represent something...quite a few things. On one level, I represent someone who has a stupid job talking to stupid humans about their stupid issues and their stupid lives that are a mess because of all those stupid issues. Once in a great while I get a moment of joy like I just had...and you ruined it for me!”

He bared his fangs and advanced towards me, clearly angry. Being a stupid human, I asked a stupid question:

“Um...are you dangerous?” I looked around for a tree branch or something to hurl.

He stopped in his tracks and gave me a look that was not dissimilar to the same look I had one time when I had forgotten about a bag of apples for six months in the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator in the condo in Chicago I had recently moved out of.

“Idiot, idiot, idiot...of course I’m dangerous...I’m a wild animal, you stupid toad. I could lunge at you and give some plastic surgeon a couple months of future job security...or not. I COULD do nothing. You have a place you want to go and I am an unpredictable factor. I am clearly in the way and you have to overcome me or get around me. You have a road to travel and goals you want to achieve and you have to contend with ME. You know what I AM, you dense little man? I am the baggage of your past, the trials of your present, and the potential threats of your future. I am the uncertainty that dogs your every decision and the possibility that each new venture may go poorly. I am the love that isn’t working that you can’t let go of, the angry words spoken to people you cherished that you can never take back, and every hurtful memory burned into your brain that impedes your ability to make a firm conclusion and stick with it, because there were times when you DID make a decision in your past that made you fall right on your mostly-hairless monkey face and you are terrified of doing it again.”

I stood there mute for a while, taking this all in. Given my ability to repeat the same mistakes ad infinitum, it didn’t surprise me that the latest incarnation of the voice of Universe was a talking raccoon...the lessons didn’t seem to be sinking in in any conventional actually LEARNING them or anything. I looked at my present life and saw the parts of it that were working and those that were not and what I should give a chance to grow and flourish and what was little more than a poison weed sucking away at my vitality. I thought about the people in my life and who was showing me love and support and who was emphatically not. I became increasingly cognizant of the areas of my world where I would “settle” for a less than positive set of circumstances and just accept behavior that was unacceptable.

I also became cognizant that the raccoon was twiddling his thumbs in an exaggerated display of comical boredom as I dithered.

“ is that it? You’re just a representation of me being in my own way? I should just move forward on my path and take the risks and eliminate the negative relationships and toxic people?”

“You’ve got it. are now slightly less stupid than you look.”

He smiled wanly at me, showing his teeth, which now appeared smaller than I first had observed.

“Proceed with your life, make mistakes, and be happy.”

“Be happy? Why?”

“Because I could have been a badger.”

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

To Find Dante's Inferno, Turn Left at Walden.

Every so often, when there is a rare break in the endless parade of vicissitudes that passes for life in our wildly careening culture, that part of my brain still capable of some level of introspection amidst the ADD haze coughs up a barrage of questions like a three-pack a day smoker on a stair-master. Questions of no small personal import like: "What is my life's great purpose, and am I fulfilling it?", "Have I lived up to my own expectations?", and "Why did I just spend so much money on toilet paper, canned food, and small bottles of propane?"

And, of course: "How did I end up HERE, of all places?"

After almost six months of living full time in the Driftless region, I have found myself asking that last one almost constantly of late, it's become like a mantra...or some sort of Zen koan lightly dipped in a tasty shell of bewilderment. Crunchy confusion flavor with small bits of pathos mixed in.

(Of course the notion of "ending up" is kind of a misguided one, as we all "end up" in something roughly analogous to a rectangular box when all is said and done, but how we get there is what makes life interesting, I suppose.)

In the spring of 2009 I purchased a 3-acre parcel of woodland as a place that I could go if life in the city became untenable. Various factors of a personal nature that could populate a novelette made me decide in favor of moving out here ahead of that point in time, but the fundamental basis was where I saw the Big Scary World headed, independent of my tiny ant-like private concerns. I've always been reasonably adept at reading the writing on the wall when I'm not actively beating my head against it, and the writing seemed to be getting much more urgent and full of exclamation points over the past few years. Whoever is in charge of said writing seemed to have discovered meth and fluorescent spray paint.

Since my mid-teens, when I have not been making music or pondering the ramifications of various things that go "bump in the night", I have been researching trends in the arena of geopolitics, global economics, and resource and population issues. So roughly three long decades of watching the world be the world, basically.

Increasingly over the years, my maladaptive tendency towards catastrophic thinking has been mirrored in the macro-world to the point where the dour fantasy is becoming reality and genuine catastrophe is knocking at the door of our incredibly interdependent and brittle civilization, asking to borrow a cup of sugar while covertly casing the place. Some residual shred of my self-preservation instinct that had not yet drowned in lassitude and fatalism told me that I should respond to that knock by running away. I am generally a pretty brave person, but when the hand that knocks on the door is roughly the size of a global empire in an early stage of implosion, it's best to find a safe place high in a tree or deep underground when that particular giant falls. Further, to live an off-grid life where you contribute FAR less to a global system that is parasitically eating its host planet has some serious ethical appeal...and I still have those burdensome things...those ETHICS. No idea how I've hung onto them for so long but they are still there, like a persistent rash. They generally don't make for an easy journey, but I can go to my grave knowing that I'm not a total ass...only that I've ACTED like one now and again.

So I took up residence in my tiny little yurt on one of the hottest days of the year, finding that the trade off for leaving the city and it's amenities was too be directly confronted with nature...who is completely indifferent to our personal travails, though she be construed as kind and surly in turn in the minds of poets.

I also left the direct physical dangers of the city, though my professional work is often tangential to diminishing the frequency and severity of said dangers.

But I found new ones out here.

In the city, crime is impersonal, and I find that relatively easy to cope with. I grew up in an atmosphere of violence...Detroit is not exactly bucolic...and grew a set of defenses perfectly adapted to dealing with those risks. I even made a career out of it in recent years. That career will probably continue, but the change of venue merits a serious change of approach.

Someone here I have become close to told me a while back that "out here in the country it's the people who know you that will hurt you"...or words to the effect: all of that repetitive beating of my head has rendered me slightly obtuse. She has an encyclopaediac knowledge of local tragedy: "This one got mangled in a combine, that one drank himself to death, and that one died under the hooves of a jealous bull". The gallows humor response to much of this type of thing is one that any Detroiter knows well. Death is death, and whether it is that of a hog or a random stranger who once sat next to you on a bus, it is something that both the urban and rural poor have a keen understanding of. Detroiters laugh it off, though the sound of that laughter is closely related to the sound of whistling past the graveyard.

That is not where the stories end though, I have heard far more detailed ones, and some of them are terrible in ways that I had not imagined during my initial forays out here. For the longest time all I heard were the stories of the owls and coyotes. Predators both, but hardly malevolent in their predation. Not like some of the other predators around us, not at all...and out here, some of them live just down the street from those they have preyed upon.

As I have listened to some of these more detailed stories I have found that my despair at the vagaries of our nature as a species has reached new depths, but my admiration for some of the people who made it through hell to tell me their stories followed an equally extreme countertrend.

There is a level of perversity and cruelty in some of the antagonists of these stories that would make the merely average sociopath turn green with envy. There were times that the impact of what I was told was so strong that all I could do was cry. It was the only possible response to hearing stories of abuse so horrific without actively seeking out the perpetrators and acting upon my darker impulses. That was only MY reaction though: often the emotions of those telling the stories are buried under so many scars that their own emotional well ran dry years ago...and perhaps the removal of the scars and the subsequent release of all that pent up hurt is far less preferable than just spending the rest of ones life numb, either through additives or the healing power of ennui.

As analytical as I come across at times, I am an emotion-based life form. I feel. I feel a lot. It's just who I am. I think it has made me a stronger the very least I've gotten some good songs out of it. However, one wishes to be analytical when the wounds of the world become so numerous that they outnumber the intact parts, and that is exactly when analysis fails and you are left with tears and rage at the injustice of man's inhumanity to man...or more likely to women, or children, or animals...they are the softer targets of the underdeveloped and brutal. And you wish to punish the guilty...or at least separate them from the far less guilty...and I say that because because the sliding scale of culpability has a place for each and every one of us, but some of us are merely guilty of being standoffish to an overly chatty waitress every once in a while.

When I was young I dreamed of living in a gentle world where people who were not actively loving each other would express benign neutrality at the very worst. Obviously, this world is not that one and I have had to get used to that fact, and to grow thick armor plating like some unknown species of mega-fauna that the fossil record is far too embarrassed to allow to be unearthed. It allowed me to live through Detroit and Minneapolis and Providence and Chicago...but perhaps not the verdant green of the Driftless region, because being damaged by those who should care most for you is something that corrodes you from's the difference between cancer and a random lightning strike...and the armor does nothing, it's just fighting the last war with the only weapons you have.

And it's all so unnecessary, isn't it? So much of the damage that we do is just based on animal fear that we could so easily overcome if we took the time to actually TALK each other through it, but that takes revealing ourselves, and that makes us vulnerable, which puts us in the line of fire of all the other people who are terrified of revealing themselves. So we choose to acrimoniously chitter away in the trees like feces-flinging monkeys while hypocritically decrying the wars of the elite as we compete, compete, compete on levels we are not even aware of.

It is our present, and our past, and it will probably be our future...and as such, we will probably not have much of one. That is the general trend. Most of our Great Worldly Problems are simple extensions of the less charitable aspects of our shared human nature...consciously modify the way we channel our nature in the world of manifest form, and we may be able to alter some outcomes here and there. Possibly.

But that part is hard...and humans hate doing that which is hard when there are other options.

Despite this, I do cling to a naive little hope that places like this psychic nexus of the Driftless region that so many of us have been drawn to can be places of deep healing. A few months ago in a rare moment of clarity I announced to some of my new friends here that I thought the Kickapoo Valley was the Land of Wounded Healers: a place where people can reach out to each other and drop the defenses that keep us from being truly well. I have met so many beautiful souls here...people of great intelligence and insight and wisdom, many of whom kept those qualities alive in themselves through some of the worst treatment imaginable, and that gives me hope in a world increasingly devoid of such. So we'll see.

Be good to each other. Help each other. May empathy prevail.