PLEASE ALLOW ME TO INTRODUCE MYSELF…

by Kent Ballard

No, I’m not a man of wealth and taste, nor did I hold a general’s rank when the Blitzkrieg raged. That title may have confused me with someone else. But you won’t confuse me with Zach.

When Zach first approached me with the idea of a joint blog, him taking it one week, me taking it the other, I naturally assumed, “Jeeze, he’s far more desperate than I thought…” Then I remembered his recent shoulder surgery and figured he tires easily while hanging upside down like a bat to type. That was understandable enough. If the eyebolts in his ceiling ever work loose, he’d crash face-first into his computer and that would be the tragic loss of a good laptop.

So after some emailing and yakking over the phone, I’ve agreed to take over Just Sayin’ every other week for six months. When that time is up, we’ll figure out if we want to continue this odd marriage or if we want a divorce. (I’m going to hold out for the house and the furniture if it comes to that.)

I’ve known Zach for thirty years. I only met him face to face once, and then for only seven hours at another writer’s house. I remember the food being good and the liquor flowing freely. I quit drinking in 1999, and was amazed to see his photo when he started Just Sayin’ because I always thought he was the Chinese guy at the party. Turns out I’d been wrong all these years. This explains the strange looks I got from the Chinese gentleman when I began a tirade against him and the city of Boston over the Big Dig.

I agree with Zachary on many things. With everything else, I am right and he is wrong. That’s the American Way on the Internet, and I’m a proud supporter of my own beliefs. Years ago, on another forum, I pointed out that he was to the left of Vladimir Lenin. He unkindly reminded me that I had once called for a nuclear first strike on Massachusetts to rid the nation of socialists and ne’er-do-wells. I had in fact made that statement, but of course was simply joking. Multiple hydrogen bombs landing on Boston would only cause the Department of Homeland Security to take away yet more of our civil rights. Hey, if they can do it with a kettle bomb powered by charcoal…

Mr. Klein and I live not only in different worlds, but in different centuries. He lives the easy city life, where you can flip open your cell phone and get a pizza or chop suey dinner delivered to your front door. The city plows the snow off his streets. He has limitless luxuries like a four-minute police response should he call them, a fire department, hell, even paved streets. I used to have such things myself, for I lived in Indianapolis for twenty-three years. I hated it.

I was born and raised on a small farm one county east of Indy. I got a job in Indianapolis, met a girl, got married, and soon was tripping over kids toys in my yard. Turns out I had married the wrong girl so a divorce followed ten years later. I kept the house, the major appliances, and got joint custody of the kids. I am one of the very few men you will ever meet who actually won a divorce. (The judge thought she was awful too. He was right.) I then set out on a quest to get to know the rest of the ladies in Indianapolis in the Biblical sense, and was about halfway through the project when I found a quiet, meek, shy beauty and fell head over heels in love. Twenty-eight years later we are still together, and living with me has had its effect on her. She can cuss, clean fish, shoot her 9mm with deadly accuracy, and fears no living thing.

When our kids were grown and gone, it was during our peak earning years. I wanted out of the city, and she was happy to follow me. It took three solid years of searching, but we found our new home.

I can’t tell you which town I live in, because the nearest thing that would pass for a town is fourteen miles away. My home is in far west-central Indiana, in the middle of what is known as a “geologic anomaly.” The great mile-high sheets of frozen ocean paused here during the last Ice Age and carved out some extremely weird topography. Then it covered itself with forest. I own 71 acres of that land, my home being in the middle of it. My driveway is a half-mile long, going back into what appears to be the Black Forest. Beyond that is my dead-end road. Beyond that, and you have the most wretched mud-and-dust roads imaginable to the nearest blacktop. A very peculiar location, as I have the telephone number of one county, the mailing address of a second, and my home is actually in a third.

It keeps the riff-raff away. I value my privacy. We supposedly have a sheriff’s department around here somewhere, but they’re never seen this far into the boonies. My insurance company charges me the maximum rate for fire insurance, because in the event of a fire—as my agent explained—there will be nothing left except for the basement. The deep forest starts twenty yards to my south and east, about twelve yards to my north, and all the storms, lightning and snow come from the west. You could literally become hopelessly lost and never set foot off my property. I know. I did that for a couple of years.

We love it here. This is the kind of land you see in picture books and winter holiday greeting cards. It will also probably kill me someday when I grow too old to care for the land properly. When I want to hunt, I go out the back door. When I want to fish, I go out the front. I couldn’t do that in any city.

I’m the Police Chief, Fire Marshal, Mayor, and Chief Engineer here. I can pee off my front porch and shoot out my back door. We skinny-dip in our largest pond. The only loud sounds here are the ones I make. It’s very different from Boston. There is no pizza delivery, no Chinese delivery, no sirens, no door-to-door unconstitutional searches by paramilitary SWAT teams. Indiana is the only state in the Union which has a law on the books allowing you to shoot a uniformed police officer if he breaks into your home. (And a very strange court case behind that.) In the winter when the power goes out we simply step back 150 years and carry on. Our ancestors made out pretty well with kerosene lamps and wood burning stoves. We can too. And I defy anyone on the planet to show me a more serene, peaceful, and meditative spot than my little four-inch deep creek that bubbles through the forest at my extreme northern boundary. If I could bottle that sound, Prozac would go bankrupt.

I registered to vote during the first year 18 year-olds got suffrage, 1971. I was and am a registered Independent, though very few Independents run for anything nowadays. I consider myself a Libertarian and often wonder why Zach and I have not strangled each other over these many years. It’s because he’s a great guy and I’m not too bad a soul either. We are both well educated, stay well informed, both listen carefully to other points of view, and both see in shades of gray—not black and white. And when he comes away with some ridiculous, half-wit idea of how this world should work, it ain’t my fault.

I hope you’ll find me acceptable for this while. At one time or another I have argued with everyone I know and yet if I have an enemy, I’m not aware of it. All I ask of you is a chance. You may grow to like me too if you’re not careful.

 

 

 

 

 

WAKING TO A NIGHTMARE

WHAT'S WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE?

WHAT’S WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE?

 

 

Something seemed strange when my eyes popped open. Not the recliner, used to it by now. Not even the shoulder pain after my recent surgery. Mornings always begin with that these days. But this time the ache seemed lighter and, for a moment, I wondered whether the painkillers were still working after seven hours.

Then it hit me. The pain was less simply because there was less pain.

Duh.

Okay, then. Rather than automatically grabbing for my morning meds, I decided to see if I could skip that round and wait for the next. Sit at the table, have my coffee, read the paper, hell, take the fucking brace off for a while.

Big mistake. For the first time in what felt like forever, I actually understood what I’d been reading for the last few weeks. But on this particular morning I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, grabbed the past week of the Boston Globes and read them all. That’s when I realized I had awakened to a nightmare.

“Boots on the ground” in Iraq? Hadn’t we already done that with horrifying results? (Is there anyone anywhere in the world (other than Iraqi politicians who got rich and powerful) who actually imagines our decade long debacle was any kind of victory for anybody? Or even slowed the growth of terrorism in any way? And now our guns, drones, bombs, and warships are starting to point toward Syria as well as Iraq.

I’m a fucking usher at the same movie over and over and, regardless of the “new” situation, I know the ending will be the same. It always is and has been since the Second World War. Isn’t that the definition of insanity? Keep doing the same thing over and over and expect different results?

Does anyone really expect a better conclusion to using our force in the Middle East? I don’t think so.

Except, I suppose, the military and those who control it. When you have the largest number of weapons ever accumulated throughout the entire course of history, the incentive to use them must feel irresistible. Kinda like having a naked sex partner in the other room. Sooner or later you’re going into that room. Probably sooner.

And make no mistake. For most politicians war is sex.

It seems apparent that our government—both Democrat and Republican—just can’t get the taste for blood out of their mouths. Could it be that if we stop being the cops of the world we’ll no longer have any identity?

We sure as hell don’t want to be known for the chart at the top of this column. And that chart doesn’t even mention the insane income disparity that currently exists. Did anyone reading this ever believe we’d be living in a country where financial inequality would be greater than during the Robber Baron era? Not me.

Truthfully, when I combine all that I read, see, and watch about our domestic and foreign policies, it doesn’t feel like a nightmare. It is one.

And I’m one of the swells. White, relatively healthy, have a home that’s paid for, work I usually enjoy, friends and relatives with little or no chance of anything other than ill-health or accidents waiting to occur. Call me crazy, but that’s just not good enough.

This isn’t the country I imagined and hoped it could become. I never thought we’d spend our lives simply enjoying the arts, never thought we’d totally eradicate poverty, or even live in communes where no one fought about whose turn it was to do the dishes. I did, however, believe that if people put their service shoulder (no pun intended) to the grindstone, time and effort would tilt all of us to a better place. A place where we wouldn’t have to sweat our children’s opportunities or our grandchildren’s lives.

Obviously I was wrong, wrong, wrong. It’s worse now for most Americans than it’s ever been. And you don’t even need that chart to see it.

Ask people you know. Ask the person who works in Walmart but has to receive food stamps to feed her kids.

Ask anyone who has children who couldn’t afford college how their job search is going. Ask if they’ve been offered anything other than part-time work with absolutely no benefits. Including health insurance–other than the half-ass Obamacare that tries to pretend it’s “healthcare for all.”

Last week Kent wrote about the way suicide sneaks up on people with bi-polar conditions. But I have a suspicion there is something I’d call “political suicide.” Do you really think the day Hunter Thompson shot himself he was more depressed than the days, months, years before? Does anyone believe that about Spaulding Gray the windy day he waded into the ocean never to return alive?

I have no doubts that a forensic psychologist could/would uncover a ton of personal reasons for why these two people took their lives. But I’ll go to my grave believing a serious slide into their descent was the realization that our society was going to get worse. Much, much worse.

They were dead right.

Now, I have no plans to kill myself because my country is the belly of the beast. I’ll continue to do as I’ve always done. Try to write about difficulties in human relationships (see Matt Jacob), about all sorts of wrongs through this column, try to find pleasure where possible—and even write about that too. Plus, I will continue to believe in my heart of hearts that innovations in technology will enable good, compassionate people throughout the world to communicate and create the potential to grow seeds of positive change.

But those seeds are still just “potential.” Now is now, and now it’s time to take my painkillers.

“There are two ways of spreading light; to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” ~ Edith Wharton

TWO DOWN NONE TO GO

IMG_2949I knew there was a problem the moment it happened. First snowfall of the winter and the first winter without Jake’s young, brawny arms living with us. Sue was crystal clear: stay inside and she’d dig everything out.

I waited until she geared up, went downstairs and began digging before I dressed and followed. Sue started yelling as soon as she saw me, but I pretended not to hear. No way I was gonna let her do the porch, stairs, walks, and cars by herself.

I knew enough to protect my right shoulder from any heavy lifting given my surgeon’s warnings that the last operation was a “one and done” deal. But I was too dumb to protect my left shoulder from overcompensating.

By the time I was back upstairs my left was throbbing and I should have let her shovel alone because a steady diet of Advil reduced the pain, but never took it away.

You might think one dumb was enough. Not me. Why stick with one when there’s more on the table? Rather than going to my doctor as soon as I realized the hurt wasn’t about to vanish, I decided to just live with it until just before Sue and I went to Mexico in the spring. Then I paid a call to my doc and received a cortisone shot to be as pain-free as possible during the trip. I also really harbored a belief that the shot would clear up the problem once and for all.

Well, at least it worked for the trip but not the “once and for all.”

Still, I hesitated making another doctor’s appointment upon our return. My gut knew another doctor visit meant another operation.

I finally went and my “gut” came true. But what surprised me was the surgeon’s announcement that the surgery had to be done the following week. I had dreamed of delaying it for a year—or, at least until after November so I could introduce myself to my newly born twin granddaughters without looking like a monster movie poster. And be able to somewhat comfortably hold them.

Wasn’t happening. He made it absolutely clear that that any delay would cost too much range of motion in my arm.

Suddenly the operation became a no brainer.

"Stone walls do not a prison make"

“Stone walls do not a prison make.”

Nevertheless this “no brainer” filled my head with dread. I remembered all too well being stuck in a recliner, unable to get out on my own, for months and months. Remembered all the times I had to call Jake in the middle of the night to help me out so I could use the john. And this time there’d be no Jake to call.

Nor was it going to be six months. Turns out there’s a new way to do shoulder surgeries and while the recovery pain is the same, the recovery time has been greatly reduced. This recovery period was just gonna be around six weeks, but the pain will be much better than my other arm when all is healed. Which Jake reminds me of every time I start feeling sorry for myself.

And no, he hasn’t moved back into the house. He used brain, not brawn. He Craiglisted to find and buy a motorized recliner that allows me to get in and out by myself. It really has made this recovery a whole lot more tolerable.

Truth is, this is really just a 1st World problem. People throughout the globe live without doctors, painkillers, operations, and limbs.

Which, in some ways has made sitting in the house more difficult. Every morning coffee is filled with newspaper horror stories. Makes me sick while I sit around waiting to use my arm. And man, after reading the papers I really want to hit something.

But that’s a price you pay when living in the belly of the beast. The contradiction of a life comfortably lived—shoulder pain or not—while most of the world exists in squalor.

Only these days I’m much less focused on my own life contradictions and much more concerned about the lives of all the kids and twins. What goes around, comes around is never far from my mind. Fact is, we can’t be bogarting most of the world’s resources and imagine this can last forever. There will be a price.

So I mostly focus on my return to writing, try to be a decent partner, friend, and father. Which I’m sure, like the shoulder I fucked up, I’ll mess up more than once. Nonetheless, I’ll keep trying.

The world will take us where it wants despite our meat-headed grandiosity.

IMG_2958In any event, it’s good to be back writing Just sayin’ and once the meds actually wear off I hope to fill the columns with more outrage, reviews, hopes and Interviews with the Dead. In other words facts, fiction, and guest posts. In other words, I’m back.

I also want to thank Kent Ballard for the last column. I found it moving, thought provoking, and deeply personal. What I call “writing from the heart.” Thanks, friend.

You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus. ~ Mark Twain

SKIPPING THROUGH THAT LONESOME VALLEY

 (Although my name is at the top of the post, the author is Kent Ballard, one of my great guest columnists.)

By Kent Ballard

When the news reports came about the death of Robin Williams, most folks were stunned. How could one of the funniest men in America be gone so suddenly, with no warning? Within hours the press informed us it was a suicide. Further reports went into more detail—damn their eyes—that he’d hanged himself with his belt and there were superficial cuts on his arms. I think that information should have been kept private for his family’s sake, but then I’m not a mega-conglomerate interested only in how much money I can rake in selling dog food and beer commercials.

Yes, I was offended. Because Robin Williams and I were from the same family, in a manner of speaking.

In 1991 I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, Type II. For 23 years I’ve been with the same psychiatrist. In that length of time he’s risen through the ranks to become the head of the Indianapolis Psychiatric Association, because he’s good, very good, at what he does. I’m lucky to have him. I clearly remember our first few talks. There is actually very little known about Bipolar Disorder, much less than you might think. Even the discovery that lithium can treat some portions of it was made by accident. To this day no one has a clue what it does or how it works but it’s the prime drug prescribed to bipolars. Everything about Bipolar Disorder is mysterious in some way. It used to simply be known as “manic-depression” which is actually more descriptive, but now considered politically incorrect.

The symptoms usually manifest themselves in the late teens to early twenties, but there are many exceptions. People can develop this in their 40’s or 50’s. In my case, when I pressed my shrink, asking him when Bipolar Disorder took over my head, he gave me a straight answer: “Kent, you should have had lithium in your baby bottle. As nearly as I can tell, you were born with it. That’s rare, but not unheard of.” He then leaned in a bit closer, as if he wanted to get a point across to me in a manner that I would never forget. “Do you realize what that means? It means your entire sum total of life experience was lived as a bipolar. Every book you ever read, every movie you ever saw, every conversation in your life, every friend you ever made, everything you ever learned, every date you ever went on, all of your experiences, every one, was lived through and understood and became part of you filtered through Bipolar Disorder. You’ve never known anything else. You probably never will.”

As you might guess, THAT rocked me back on my heels. I sat there and blinked for some time, then quietly asked, “Doctor, are you telling me that…that I’m crazy?”

No, quite the opposite was the case. Take a moment and do something interesting. Google “famous bipolars” and see what you get. You’ll see a list of some of the world’s greatest artists, military leaders, composers, physicists, doctors, a whole galaxy of people you’ve studied in school or know about from their sheer fame. In that sense, I’m in wonderful company. What made them famous, regardless of their field of expertise, was their ability to think outside the box, to see around corners, to think thoughts and dream up concepts no one ever had before. As Patty Duke Austin wrote in her magnificent autobiography of a bipolar life, “A Brilliant Madness,” “Manic-depression is the only mental disorder with a GOOD side.”

And it is. Believe me when I tell you there is no high like a bipolar high. If they could put that into a bottle the world would become addicted overnight. I’ve had moments of nearly superhuman strength, of being involved in affairs where people would later say I was either the bravest—or the craziest—person they had ever met, of days when I required no sleep, of having every child I ever met fall in love with me, the ability to tell almost instantly when I am being lied to, and ten thousand other things that have been pretty handy over the years. But it’s no free ride. There is a price to pay for all this, one so heavy it literally kills people.

And this is what took Robin Williams. Sir Winston Churchill used to write about the “black dog” of depression in his private journals. Many bipolars have days when they cannot force themselves out of bed. And all bipolars drink. And they will drink to excess as soon as they can supply themselves with alcohol. I started at age 13 and never stopped until 1999, and it damned near killed me in the process. Science at least has an answer for that. They now know it to be a misguided–almost pitiful– attempt at self-medication.

Go through YouTube and look at some of Williams’ work. Can you imagine how incredibly fast he must have been thinking? How he seems to come at you from all sides at once? How he appears to be almost maniacal in his thoughts? He wasn’t acting. Bipolars think faster than other people. But they often think so fast they become erratic. Watch enough of his films and sooner or later you’ll see spots where he was not controlling it. It was controlling him.

The leading cause of death among those with Bipolar Disorder is suicide. More bipolars die of that than any other cause. With typical perversity, it can simply pop into a bipolar’s mind that this is the answer to the questions they’ve asked all their lives. It can and will kill bipolars in mere minutes. A sudden depression so deep no human can withstand it. Also perversely, bipolars tend to leave behind cheerful suicide notes. My shrink told me fascinating stories of some he had read. Many were actually so happy and funny that he found himself laughing until he remembered what he was reading.

Bipolar Disorder is not genetic. It is not passed via genes from parent to child. But it is “familial,” meaning it tends to run in families in odd spurts here and there. There were once three bipolars in my family. When my niece committed suicide she left a warm, loving note telling everyone how much she cared for them. Later, when they were cleaning her apartment, they found a note they’d overlooked. In her handwriting, Gina said there were clothes still running in the dryer, and would someone take them out?

Whatever overcame her took her that fast. She could not and would not wait for the dryer to finish its cycle.

When I got the telephone call in 2008 that my only daughter, Annie, had taken her life my mind flashed back to the several conversations we’d had about the subject. I warned her time and again this was a possibility for all of us, to be frightened of it and to call me, her mother, anyone if she ever felt suicidal. She never had the time to do that. It was as if she’d been cut down by a sniper. Annie loved life and ate it in big bites. She had more friends than I could count, had recently gotten an impressive promotion at her job and a new apartment. Everything was going great for her. Right up until the end.

So don’t think me cruel or uncaring when I say that Robin Williams’ death came as no surprise to me. I’ve had 23 years of training and counseling, learning never to listen to the voice of Death calling me. He’s never far away and I know that. He’s whispered to me more than once and I had the ability to run away. I’ve been careful and lucky so far. Mostly lucky.

If you know someone who’s bipolar, tell them they can call you at any hour. You might make the difference for them. Generally, suicide is preventable among normally depressed people who’ve simply suffered a string of bad things which have happened to them. With bipolars it’s a crap shoot. Whatever hits us so suddenly, and with such speed and overwhelming force, there’s often nothing you can do except listen to your heart rip apart when you get the news they’re gone.

But were these lives wasted? Not really, not in my opinion. Because when they were riding that high bipolar wave they had more fun than you will ever know. They laughed and enjoyed life and were brilliant and deeply, truly, knew they were loved and gave tremendous love in return. They were not candles in the wind. They were, and are, more like skyrockets. It’s only after they roar and shriek up to their zenith and dazzle us all with blinding lights of many colors that, after a moment, we realize how dark the night really is. But friend, when they were firing, they were magnificent.

“My candle burns at both ends

It will not last the night

But oh my foes, and oh my friends

It gives a lovely light” ~ Edna St. Vincent Millay

GETTY’S GOT NOTHING ON ME

In the middle of my latest attempt to bring my office back from chaos into order, I actually began looking at all the stuff I’ve collected. Out-of-print books, a couple of original paintings from an artist I consulted for, framed posters, a neon sign I’d been given by a friend that spells ZACH’S (the name I planned to use whenever I fantasized about opening a bar), and many deco pieces along with a fine gathering of Bakelite radios. Nice things, mostly hunted and gathered years ago.

Now I collect art. Sue collects art, but in a very different way. She looks for paintings, small sculptures, and photographs created by as-yet-unknown artists. Sue, like me, has gone through different collecting obsessions but for the most part has stuck with her holy trinity. For quite a while she also had her “junking” friends keep an eye out for different body part sculptures but that’s seem to have (no pun intended—right) petered out.

I’m different. I want the masters. I want what museums have. And I get ‘em. I bring a notepad and pen whenever we visit an exhibit or gallery to write down artists’ names that I like, then return home and turn on my computer The Google is my personal art repository.

Then I collect. Some connoisseurs specialize and curate, I am eclectic with enough resources (hard drive memory) to indulge my fancies. My private gallery: my desktop image.

Rothko

 

 

 

 

 

Sometimes I need a calming influence so I might choose one of my Rothko’s.

 

If I’m feeling playful I spend some time with Pop Art:

Lich

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sometime I enjoy a dose of sophisticated irony and turn to Christian Schad:

 

Shad

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

or jump to one of my go-tos, Max Beckmann,

Beckman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

and of course, Otto Dix.

OttoDix

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For politics my Mexican muralists often fill the bill: Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and my favorite David Alfaro Siqueiros.

 

Siq

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Many moods, many great pictures. But in truth, for me the rubber meets the road with Photorealism. Yes I enjoy Picasso and Modern, the great masters, street art, and pretty much any school that speaks to me. But give me Audrey Flack,

 

Flack

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ralph Goings,

 

Goings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

and especially Richard Estes.

 

Estes

 

 

 

 

 

I guess I’m wedded to reality and it shows.

 

Okay, I can’t actually afford to buy anything by these artists, but I don’t have to. My laptop has the world’s greatest art collection and it’s free!

(Did I mention my naked celebrity folder?)

Every act of perception, is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination. ~ Oliver Sacks