Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Understanding the Game

A central thing we do as human beings, in our interaction with one another, is learn to block out psychic pain; and the degree to which we're able to, or even want to do so, constitutes a great distinction among us. Some people block out such pain quite well, while others feel more acutely emotions like empathy, and love, that so often go in tandem with pain. This distinction affects a great deal in our lives, and I'd like to touch upon a few of those things in this essay, but because writing is of particular interest to me, let me start with its effect on our ability to write creatively.

I'll take poetry here to represent creative writing, and creativity in general, because it's the most intensely creative form of writing. Clearly, in order to write poetry, one must apprehend and experience life as it is, free from the blinders most of us develop to insulate us from the more painful aspects of life. I'll talk more about these blinders shortly, but my first point is that all artists need to apprehend life, notwithstanding its coldness and indifference to the individual, to derive any meaningful insight to communicate.

(Once, in a failed attempt to learn to draw, I studied a book entitled Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. In essence, what it imparted was that when we begin to draw, most of us don't draw what we really see. Instead, we draw a representation of what we see - a representation created by our mind - a sort of symbol for what we see. When children first draw, for example, a tree, they don't draw what they really see before them, but a symbol of what they see. Not a tree, but the symbol of a tree. And most of us, when we attempt to draw, unless trained otherwise, continue to do this to a greater or lesser degree throughout our lives. A similar phenomenon takes place with writing; yet it's even more involved, and thus harder to overcome, because we are dealing with symbols that have deeper psychic roots than the symbols we create merely to understand the physical world.)

We create these symbols (or more accurately in this case, thought patterns) to hide ourselves from the painful aspects of reality. If, for example, a child realizes that his or her mother doesn't really love them, they create fictions to account for that behavior on her part. "She's just so busy. . ." or, "she can't express her true feelings," etc. Over time, these fictions and justifications become established facts in the child's mind, and often, encouraged by the withholder, established facts in the minds of others affected by the situation as well.

Thus, when a person writes about what they know best, or think they know best, their own life experience, they don't write the unvarnished truth, but, unwittingly, the sanitized version of the truth that exists in their mind - a symbol of reality like that of the neophyte artist. In order to shield ourselves we create comfortable illusions, but these illusions lack the fire of unadulterated vision. To write, especially to write poetry, is to suffer. A prime example of this truism would be the French poet, Baudelaire, whose sensitivity to the world was so acute it bordered on masochism. But with poetry (as with so much in this world of duality and paradox), we find a great contradiction regarding this question of sensitivity: one that partly accounts for there being so few great poets in any language.

John Keats (who was himself the most sensitive of human beings) said of his evolution as a poet, essentially, that the poet must gain detachment to be great; and, contrary to the above assertion that it's necessary for poets to retain their sensitivity, what Keats said was also true, and seems true of the creative process as a whole. One must gain detachment to present their vision in a manner that others (and not just they themselves) can appreciate, and yet one must retain their openness to be a poet - retain their capacity for passion, and compassion. They must not kill those things in themselves in exchange for the numbness that shields them from pain, but is also akin to death.

For that is the great price we pay for blocking out pain. With it we block out sensation, and sensation, in its broadest sense, is not just the meat of the writer, it is the essence of life. Our most meaningful communion with other living things is inextricably woven with sensation, and such communion is, finally, the only thing that really matters. No degree of luxury can make for a pleasant solitary confinement. On our deathbeds few of us will find ourselves wishing that we'd had a better car. It's relationships alone, with people and other beings, that have ultimate meaning. So just as the artist cannot allow themselves to be too sheltered, so people in general should seek to avoid the devil's bargain in order to remain, as fully as possible, alive. For, again, to completely block out the feelings that leave us most vulnerable to pain, is to effectively kill genuine communion, and thus in the process to gradually kill one's own spirit.

So, contrarily, the poet must be like a surgeon and stand aloof from their individual view of the world in order to reach the highest plane of communication, and through these two antipodes, the intensely personal and the universal, potentially reach those moments of transcendence that all artists should aspire to. And if the difficulties of embodying these contrary aspects of human nature at the same time, that of intense sensitivity and universal objectivity, seem insurmountable, that's because they virtually are, and that's why this level of artistry's so rare.

Shakespeare embodied these contrary aspects of the poet perhaps more clearly than anyone. Though he perceived the human condition all too clearly, in all its attendant injustice and tragedy, he was yet able to present that vision with unparalleled objectivity, as if he himself didn't exist. We see Shakespeare the man almost nowhere in his work - part of the reason, I think, that people seem eternally puzzled about who wrote his works. We know who wrote them. William Shakespeare wrote them. Yet having read them we still know nothing about Shakespeare the man, and so we remain curious.

This question of our respective abilities to block out pain has implications, however, much more fundamental, and urgent, than those of its affect upon the creative process. In our world today there are many advantages for those unable, or unwilling, to feel - and particularly for those who don't allow themselves to feel empathy. They can move through life relatively free of the pain of betrayal, rejection, and the other thousand shocks that flesh is heir to. Further, those who block their feelings have the potential to exert great power over those who retain more of their spiritual totality, through the exercise of various means of cruelty and manipulation. The reason for this is, at least partly, that others simply don't want to perceive the yawning depth of lovelessness in those who exhibit this characteristic in its acute forms.

This phenomenon of emotional deadening is complex, and something virtually all of us do to one degree or another. In some people it may arise from intense feelings of insecurity, from being too sensitive to absorb the assault on the self-esteem that everyone living encounters, in one form or another. In some it is innate. Those with personality disorders, such as narcissistic or anti-social personality disorder (conditions unfortunately more prevalent than most of us know)) lack something in their genetic makeup enabling them to bond with others. In my experience, to many such people, the realization follows that such a state of being has great advantages.

Those who deaden their emotions often find it brings them power, and power is addictive. There is something deeper here than readily meets the eye, something of universal importance. In this process some people become addicted to the thrill of power and substitute it for the finer aspects of themselves that have been deadened, or don't exist. This dichotomy, in many cases this choice, of whether to be or not to be, also seems connected to the conflict of the higher and lower forces that interact in the world, defining our reality.

The most subtle, and yet perhaps greatest, power of this deadened emotional receptiveness, may be achieved through simply withholding love and approval. Parents, for example, can exert a cleverly concealed tyranny over their children, simply by universally withholding love and approval, until their victims bow to their will. Such people may also resort to more egregious forms of subterfuge and intimidation, for the hollow, egotistical, thrill they find in getting their own way. Against people whose spectrum of emotional responses are intact, such withholding can prove to be an especially ruthless weapon. It has driven many people to suicide, and rarely does anyone confront the perpetrator. It can be a kind of hidden murder.

Such people seek to assert their will ruthlessly, though it may be arbitrary, irrational, or even perverted. Destroying their own spirits, they come to thrive on hollow substitutes, such as the thrill of self-righteousness, cruelty, and manipulation. It is this deadening of the higher sensibilities. such as love, associated with spiritual transcendence, that, left unchanged, will present humanity with its inevitable downfall. It is a mindset akin to that of a pack of hyenas fighting over a carcass, and a mindset that has become celebrated in our culture. Many people now, unabashedly even, see this mindset as the defining credo of America. This is much of the explanation for America's startlingly rapid decline since 1945.

Many who read this may be saying to themselves - he exaggerates! But a mere glance at the state of human society today should be enough to demonstrate that I do not. At this juncture anyone can see something is deeply wrong with society, and that it's hidden. Clearly it is there! We know it is! But what is it, where is it?

Here is where it is.

These qualities of sensitivity, or deadness to sensation, exist on a spectrum. We rarely find a single person who embodies one or the other entirely. We all must live in a world governed, at least partially, by Darwinian survival of the fittest, and we must all somehow adapt to the nature of that cold reality. Yet it is also true that the lack of sensitivity can and does become a recognized pathology, and that the key significance of these pathologies has just lately been fully recognized.

At any rate, such coercion through negation often goes completely unnoticed, and so it is a chief weapon of those who want to impose their will on others. It isn't socially acceptable (again, for example) for parents to openly demand that their daughter stay home and take care of them until they die. So instead they may withhold love and approval, and shame her for having a normal sexual interest. Thus a person who has emotionally detached acquires the power to dominate others, exerting a malevolent influence over those who have retained their capacity for love and the higher aspects of being.

This is true in society as well as in family. How can the abused point to nothing, to negation, as the source of their abuse? When in fact, negation itself is often the most significant aspect of how we are abused? How can we say that it's what our parents don't ever say that wounds us most? How can we say it's how our employers never respond, no matter how hard we work, that wounds us most? How can we say it's how we're never rewarded for our actions, no matter how loyal or altruistic they are, that wounds us most? It may very well be (and often is in an era in which evasion of responsibility has become elevated to a Dark Art), that no matter how abused we are, we can't ever point a finger at our abusers because the method used to abuse us is hidden.

In this, it seems to me, lies the consummate evil of the corporate structure, which seeks to codify the deadening of all feeling, of all impulses of love, and compassion, toward all people, and all living things, into an unassailable and all-powerful institution. This is, from my perspective, evil incarnate, and it is destroying the world. Yet the point is, and we all need to understand this: it is not the corporation itself that is evil. it is that aspect of ourselves described above, that has created the corporation in its own image, that is evil. It is the capacity in us to deaden all human feeling in order to achieve power that is evil.

From the corporate boardroom, to the halls of Congress, to the dysfunctional family, to the bully in the schoolyard, the world is filled with those who've traded their spiritual wholeness for a deadness in life that brings earthly power, and people need to recognize this clearly if they choose to oppose evil in our families and institutions.

It's very understandable that people want to shield themselves from pain, but it's well to see that in this seemingly understandable and forgivable tendency lies the root of evil itself. The world can bring us misfortunes, but only human beings can bring us evil. In my experience, those who block their feelings utterly, often come to see themselves as superior to those who cannot, or will not, do so. And this feeling of superiority in turn justifies ever higher degrees of selfishness and callousness over time. They see others who don't want to deaden themselves to the higher sensations and experiences in life, as weak, or stupid, and as being "an easy mark."

Thus the higher human feelings, such as love, compassion, and artistic creativity, often become a liability in the Darwinian jungle such people reduce us to, to suit their own lower natures, and the very higher aspects of ourselves that might enable us to advance as a species become liabilities, and chains, that tie us to evil masters. Such de-humanized people have an advantage because it's always easier to tear down and destroy than to build and create. So the first priority of civilized society is to see that those who have retained their higher human attributes remain those who direct the course of that society and shape the future. In the world today humanity is failing this test. Thus the world is made topsy turvy, and all too commonly, in too many walks of life, the worst of us come to dominate the best.

Brent Hightower
Copyright 2018 Brent Hightower
*Image from University of Worcester

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

A Personal Note On Publishing Inner Demons

Eighteen years after deciding to pursue serious writing - that is, writing not just intended to entertain, but also to express some ideas of higher importance - I find myself in a quandary, the nature of which is somewhat surprising to me. When I set out to write, I wasn't at all sure I was capable of it. It was an act of faith. So, surprisingly to me, it isn't my own failure at that rather audacious ambition that poses me with the quandary I now find myself in.

With the publication of my third book, Inner Demons and other essays, I can fairly say that I haven't failed myself as a writer. Inner Demons, for all its faults, lives up to my expectations. If successful, I think I can write wore on the subjects involved, and more that I think is worthwhile. Where I've failed however - miserably - has been in finding an audience for those ideas.

I frankly don't understand the age we live in now. It's common knowlegde the world's in desperate need of regeneration. Yet in presenting new ideas it seems there's often very little interest taken in them. Yet...

One thing I know. If humanity is to emerge from the next century, it will do so with practically every moral and intellectual value that we currently act upon in the conduct of modern life discredited. The world is not veering toward the precipice because of its own inertia, it's doing so because of us, and the essential failure of our fundamental outlook on life and its meaning.

I think Inner Demons opens a serious debate regarding the validity of that outlook and points toward the possibility of new directions. To have spent such a great part of life in the development of these ideas, and to see them largely ignored, would be enough to make anyone succumb to the strange current state of torpor, or mesmerism that seems to grip the entire world today. Have we run out of ideas, or just the courage to confront our own inner demons?

Brent Hightower
Copyright 2008 Brent Hightower

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Riding on the Storm

Having completed my volume of collected essays, 2014 to 2017, I determined I needed to re-access my original purpose in writing this blog. I first conceived it as a place where I, along with others, could post writing in progress, and contributors could offer each other constructive criticism in a friendly atmosphere. Yet it didn't evolve along those lines. Rather, it evolved into a place where I alone have posted work in progress (along with some finished work), and though I've received a lot of interest in the blog, I've received relatively little criticism, and no submissions from other writers. So on the one hand it's been successful in attracting a readership, while on the other it hasn't worked out as I first intended.

As a result I've decided to change the format to one more logical, and I hope more enjoyable for the reader. I've decided to publish my books here one chapter (or essay, or poem, respectively) at a time, and delete the old when I post the new. I'll post the new work every week, on Thursday evening whenever possible. Otherwise, I 'll post as close to that time as I can.

I'm changing the format primarily so people can read my completed works without having to buy them. I believe the novels are worthy of more exposure than they've received, and in serializing the new work of essays, when it comes out, I hope to interest people in that book as well. I believe a writer must focus on writing in order to produce work of real value, and in making that attempt I've been unable to devote significant time to promotion. Thus, the books have had only limited exposure. All I hope is that readers will enjoy the work enough to buy a copy for themselves, and/or recommend it to others.

Those who do find these works of interest can buy them from Amazon, as well as from many other online booksellers in paperback, or on Amazon Kindle, at the very reasonable price of $3.00

Thank you all for your continuing interest.



"The Broken World," Chapter Twenty-Seven


The night that Cait spent in the drunk tank ended her career as a peace activist because the state had done the one thing that could discourage her. Had she been brutally interrogated or falsely imprisoned or tried on trumped-up charges, it would have only strengthened her resolve, but being thrown into a holding pen with a bunch of prostitutes was not the kind of martyrdom she had imagined. Being known as a political dissident had a certain glamour, but that was a far cry from the reality of a county jail. It was one thing to side with the downtrodden of the world in theory, to hope for their regeneration through a humane and rational socialism, but it was another to sit beside them and smell their body odor.
Fear for her reputation led her to insist that Gordon “use the belt” on Byrd for breaking the windows at the school. She was going to be a teacher and didn’t want to be criticized for being too lenient or permissive; and if Byrd’s teacher was stupid, bigoted, and violent, it was inconvenient to admit it. Fear for her reputation likewise ended her activism.
Cait’s generation of the O’Connors encouraged their children to have dreams and ideals, or at least intellectual ambitions, as long as the status quo of income and respectability was not threatened. Dreams and ideals provided the family with a veneer of values; and perhaps, on some level, they even sincerely believed their stated convictions. But since dreams and ideals often conflict with social advancement, the O’Connors rather quickly settled for a comfortable disillusionment. Strangely, this sacrifice often filled them with a poignant wistfulness, a feeling that the world had rebuffed their nobler aspirations; and this, in turn, often led to having a little drink.
So Cait insisted that Gordon punish Byrd for the broken windows, to make sure nothing like it ever happened again. Gordon argued with her, knowing that the world is founded on a pack of lies and hypocrisy, but Cait was so incensed that he finally gave in. He used his belt halfheartedly at first, but Cait demanded that he put a will into it, so Byrd gritted his teeth and then finally broke down crying, which was the intended result. Cait also took away his allowance for a year.
At school, Bart Clark was triumphant. In his whole career, he had never hated a student as much as he hated Byrd; and he finally had a good excuse to punish the dirty, long-haired, little brat. For a month Byrd had to keep his desk facing the wall, and nobody was allowed to talk to him. Clark found excuses to humiliate him in front of the class, and several times lost his temper entirely, grabbing and shaking Byrd viciously by the hair. The other kids were terrified of Bart Clark, so most of them ridiculed Byrd, and he developed a nervous tic in his right eye and compulsive blinking in both eyes.
“I don’t want to hear about it!” Cait said when he complained. “You brought it on yourself.”
This was about the only communication he had with anybody at home in those days; otherwise, the silence was deafening. Everyone kept to their rooms, and he went for days hardly seeing any of his family, hiking alone in the mountains or spending the hours reading or watching the praying mantis on the ceiling of his room. Watching it had a calming effect; its motion was primordial, and observing it, he often went into a trance. But in early April the silence was shattered.
“The bastards!” Gordon shouted one evening, so loudly that it reverberated through the whole house. “They killed him!”
Rage and despair filled Gordon’s voice.
“They killed who?” Cait shouted up the stairs.
“Martin Luther King!”
“Oh, Jesus! Who?”
“They say they don’t know yet. But it was J. Edgar Hoover, the bastard! If he didn’t order it, he looked the other way! They could’ve given King protection years ago, but they wanted him dead. The sons of bitches!”
The story was coming over the old mahogany radio, and the whole family except Eve gathered in Gordon’s room to listen. Martin Luther King had been assassinated in Memphis, shot by a rifle on a hotel balcony. The reporter’s voice was strained, almost frantic, as though he expected something terrible to ensue at any moment.
“Goddamn those bigots!” Gordon shouted after they had listened for a while. “The McCarthys and the Hoovers have ruined this country! Them and the KKK and all the other fascists that they represent! What will we ever have now but hatred and division? Jesus Christ! And these people call themselves Christians!”

After that day, despair began to haunt the house. It wasn’t just silence now, but something more devastating and permanent. Byrd always remembered his father then, lost and isolated in his private world, surrounded by his books and records in the gloom, like some librarian of the damned.
Cobwebs began clinging to the doors and furniture from neglect, the house was usually dark, and a layer of dust gradually began to settle over everything. What use was knowledge in a world of such hatred, and violence? His father’s learning had become his private hell, because the gap between his dreams and reality could no longer be bridged. King’s death was the final blow—Byrd could see it in his eyes.
Things had become worse than Byrd ever remembered them being. For the first time he saw his father really drunk in the evenings, and in the few intervals in which he bothered to talk to anybody his voice was slurred and bitter.
And then everything started to burn.
First it was the cities burning casting an orange halo over darkened skies, and then, gradually, came a smoldering fire that spread everywhere unseen. It burned down families, friendships, and blackened hopes and aspirations. Smoke hung in the open air, was carried on the wind, and lingered in people’s houses. It lurked in corners and attics, waiting to ignite and burn the stockpile of all illusions. It leapt high in the night from thatched villages and rice paddies. Sparks flared behind suspicious and hate-filled eyes. Everywhere Byrd went he could feel it, hidden just below the surface.
Amelia invited the family to her house for Easter, but all of her children declined. Gordon would have liked to bash Ryan’s brains out, and the feeling was mutual. Everyone else in the family was divided more or less into warring camps, everyone except Fiona and her husband, Eric Sr. Fiona was too nervous to face any serious questions; and Eric, like so many college professors, was instinctively waiting on the sidelines to see who would come out on top. Then he could claim that he had been on their side all along. They hadn’t received all that education for nothing.
One weekend around the first of May, wanting badly to get away from his own house for a while, Byrd visited his cousin Eric Jr. in the suburbs of Albuquerque. Eric was almost two years older, and Byrd had never seen him much except at their grandmother Amelia’s place. The two boys sat in Eric’s living room watching “the great migrations” that is—Eric Sr. walking from his office, through the dining room and the kitchen, past the utility closet out to the garage, and then back to his office again over and over. Eric and Byrd counted seventy-nine “great migrations” before finally giving up. Fiona was in the kitchen watching television and carrying on an anxious conversation with the dog. Occasionally she made a little small talk with Byrd, for appearance’s sake, while tittering softly and wincing as if he had threatened her with a hammer.
“Everybody here communicates through the dog,” Eric told Byrd when they went outside. “My mother talks to the dog, and my father talks to the dog, but they never talk to each other. The dog must relay messages in some mysterious way that I’m not aware of, or else nobody would know what’s going on at all. I’m sure glad you’re here because I’m grounded, and if you weren’t here, I’d have to stay in my room. And I’m not supposed to mention it to anybody.”
“How long have you been grounded?”
“Almost two years.”
“You’re kidding.”
“My mom says it’s because she’s afraid I’ll smoke pot.”
“Do you?”
“I didn’t before I was grounded, but now I do all the time. It’s the only way to stay sane around here. I’m telling you, it’s a fucking asylum.”
“Tell me about it! Sometimes I think my house is actually a funeral home.”
“After school I come home through the storm sewers,” Eric said. “They’re always perfectly dry, and I know how to follow them from the high school almost to my house. Nobody’s ever in there, of course, and I have a couple of lids stashed there, and I get high every day before I go home. Anyway, the real reason she doesn’t want me to go anywhere is because there are girls in the outside world. She’s afraid of sex. Actually she’s afraid of just about everything, and that makes her dangerous. There’s nobody as dangerous as somebody who’s afraid of everything. She’s the only person I’ve ever seen that can clean a house in a way that’s scary.”
“If I were you, I’d just go out anyway. Nobody would keep me locked up here for two years.”
“You think so? Then you don’t know my mother. She threatens me with reform school, and she’d do it too if she caught me doing something wrong. That’s why I hang out in the storm sewers. I almost had a girlfriend before I got grounded,” he said. “I think she suspected it, and that’s why she grounded me.”
“Shit . . . ,” Byrd said, and then he found himself at a loss for words and just stood there feeling stupid for a few minutes. What can you say to somebody who’s been grounded for two years? He was also realizing that the suburbs and Alma Perdido were so different that, except for being from the same crazy family, he and Eric might as well have been from different planets.
“Hey, I know what,” Byrd said. “I’ll ask your mother if you can go camping. She’ll be too embarrassed to tell everybody you’ve been grounded for two years, so she’ll have to let you go.”
“You think so?”
“Shit, that’s a great idea!”
“We can hike over the mountain from Alma to Albuquerque. It’ll take about three days!”
Eric was so excited that Byrd thought he might really start jumping for joy.

Everything went as planned. Byrd asked his parents if he could go, and of course nobody really gave a damn what he did, so they started early on a Saturday morning at a place called Cavern Springs, at the foot of the mountain. They filled their canteens and soaked their shirts in the springwater to get a chill before setting out. It was already turning hot in the foothills, and before they were up a thousand feet, they were pouring with sweat—they were glad to reach the tree line after about three hours, before the sun had reached its peak intensity.
Up in the evergreens, the air was still cool from the recent snow melt, and the forest exhaled the crisp smell of pine in hot weather, but the ground was dry and badly needed rain. From the ridge, they could see an arc of one hundred and fifty miles to the north, south, and west. The trees blocked their view to the east.
“God, it’s good to be out here!” Eric said. “I’m so sick of my house and the fucking suburbs you wouldn’t believe it! Man, you’re lucky you don’t live there!”
“You might be surprised if you lived in Alma,” Byrd said. “It’s a lot crazier than you think.”
“It couldn’t be as fucked up as the suburbs. Did you know that when you walk down the street you’re being watched all the time? I’ll show you when we get back. You think you’re all alone, but if you watch closely, you’ll see the curtains opening just a crack in all the houses as you walk past. They’re all unbelievably paranoid. But if you knew what I know, you’d think that was the most normal thing about them. Do you smoke pot?”
“Yeah, sometimes.”
“Want to smoke some? I brought some with me.”
“How the hell did you manage that?”
“Like I said, I stash it in the storm drains. I got some yesterday, before my mother dropped me off. Whenever I manage to sneak out of the house, I get high, and I walk around and study the surrealism of suburbia. It’s my hobby. I’ll show you when we get back to Albuquerque . . . Damn, I wish I didn’t ever have to go back again!”
“Yeah, me too. I got busted breaking all the windows at school.”
“Jesus, if I did that, it would be the end for me. I’m not kidding.”
“I got the belt, and they took away my allowance for a year. That’s all. My teacher’s a Nazi. He’s like Joseph Goebbels without the charm. I’d like to kill him. Believe me, I’d live up here the rest of my life if I could do it.”
“Yeah, well, at least you get to be outside whenever you want.”
“Yeah, and I am most of the time too. I almost never go home anymore. It’s like the graveyard scene in Hamlet. And Neil’s such a sneaky little asshole—he’s like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern combined!
“Yeah, what’s the matter with that guy anyway? I used to like him when we were little, but he’s turned out to be pretty weird.”
“I don’t know what’s the matter with him, really. I think he hates himself for some reason. He changed completely a couple of years ago. He’s like a different person.”
“What do you think of the thing with Gail?” Eric asked quietly, instinctively lowering his voice.
“God, I feel sorry for her! Can you believe Cora and Ryan?”
“Ryan is the most fatuous person I’ve ever seen.”
“Then you never saw Bart Clark.”
“Who the fuck is Bart Clark?”
“My teacher.”
Eric lit his pipe, and they passed it back and forth for a while, enjoying the freedom and each other’s company. Feeling joyful, they went running through the woods, where a light breeze was refreshing and the forest floor was carpeted with a dazzling mixture of spring flowers. Byrd ran through a carpet of bluebells and felt like a bird flying through the sky of some other world, where there weren’t wars and assassinations and people like Ryan and Sterling Slaver and Bart Clark. Suddenly, the boys came to a place on the ridge where everything was bright orange.
“Wow, what the hell is this?” Eric yelled.
“It’s ladybugs! Everything’s covered with ladybugs!”
It was stunning, almost unbelievable! The trees, the rocks, the ground, everything was covered with ladybugs, millions of them, as far as they could see. They walked carefully out of the woods and stood in an ocean of ladybugs, feeling as though they had stepped off the earth entirely.
They camped near the summit and awoke at dawn to a layer of clouds that extended from their feet over the Rio Grande Valley, all the way to the Western horizon, and they watched as the rising sun behind them cast the clouds into pure gold. The dome of sky was the most beautiful, exhilarating shade of eggshell blue. Byrd felt as though he were on the edge of an ultimate understanding, of discovering something that went to the core of things.
After another two days and nights of freedom, they made their descent into Albuquerque. Since starting out, all they had eaten was cold food, and when they got into town they were starving. The first place they came to in the city was a McDonald’s that appeared to be the flagship of the McDonaldland mythology.
At the door they were greeted by a huge plastic statue of Mayor McCheese. The interior was painted in shades of lime green and what could only be described as baby-shit yellow, and a mural in a matching color scheme wrapped around every wall, depicting some enigmatic but obviously pivotal episode in the McDonaldland Saga. Little purple Munchkins were running for their lives from the Hamburglar, who was being chased in turn by another plump and terrorizing Mayor McCheese, dangling a pair of handcuffs. Then there was the great clown himself, Ronald McDonald, surveying the surreal scene with a cheerful grin that seemed to say . . . well, God knows what it seemed to say, really. One could only speculate on its ultimate significance.
After getting their food, Eric and Byrd sat on a hard orange plastic bench beside a looming figure of the Grimace and devoured their hamburgers while it leered at them. The place was filled with people who seemed to belong there. They carried plastic purses and wore plastic costume jewelry and had garishly dyed hair and wore synthetic clothes in neon colors.
“Can you believe this place?” Eric said.
“God! Let’s get the hell out of here! It’s creepy!”
“The worst part is that when you live around here, you start to think it’s normal,” Eric said as they walked down the street again.
“You notice how all the trees are trimmed into perfect conical shapes? People here can’t let a tree be a tree. They’re afraid of trees. A tree is too radical, so they have to force it to conform to their narrow conception of what a tree should be. Seriously. There aren’t any dandelions on the lawns, anywhere. A dandelion represents a form of rebelliousness that has to be crushed. No, we can’t have any of those wild flowers threatening the neighborhood. If we have flowers, they will be red roses, they will be flowers that look the way respectable flowers should look, by god! No exceptions.”
As Byrd glanced around, everything became a sinister cartoon land.
“If you look carefully, you’ll notice the curtains move as we walk by, like I told you. We don’t live on this block, so we’re outsiders, and we must be monitored. Note also the perfect squareness of the hedges. There must not be anarchy as far as hedges are concerned!”
“Jesus, it’s creepy!”
“Well, it doesn’t even give you a clue to how uptight people are around here. It’s a prison built by the inmates, and they call it freedom. Then they celebrate it by flying the flag and praising Thomas Jefferson. If Thomas Jefferson walked down this street, they’d have him taken in for questioning and run out of town. Have you ever read “The Burrow,” by Kafka?”
“Read it sometime. It’s a story about the suburbs, but it’s really about a rodent!”

That evening, back in Alma Perdido, Byrd was outside and heard Neil shouting from the top of the hill near the old ruin, where he had hit Byrd with the rock.
“Help!” he yelled.
There was a weak note to that “help!” And then it came again, a little weaker . . . “Help.”
Byrd ran up the hill thinking that Neil might have broken his neck, but instead he found his brother sprawled in a cactus patch. Neil was lying face up, spread eagle, smack in the middle of it; and he was unable to move or even talk without driving the needles in further.
“What the hell happened?” Byrd asked.
“I . . . was running . . . a-along the foundation . . . of th-the house . . . and I-I tripped,” Neil whispered, his voice coming in gasps. “Come on . . . help . . . help get me out!”
Byrd waded gingerly into the prickly pears and grabbed Neil by the arms. He gave a terrific pull; and Neil, as stiff as a board, started to come up, unable to bend because of the spines that covered him like a porcupine. He was very hard to lift in that position, and suddenly he slipped and fell back again.
“Oh, Jesus!” Neil yelped. “What’s the matter with you, you idiot . . . come on!”
It would have been better for Neil if he hadn’t used the word idiot because at that moment a brilliant idea came to Byrd. It was a joyous idea, filled with infinite possibilities of delight; and when Neil was halfway up again, down he went.
“Goddamn it!” Neil whimpered.
“Damn!” Byrd said. “You keep slipping.”
Neil’s eyes darted desperately from side to side, looking for some escape, hoping there was someone besides Byrd he could appeal too. He uttered a pathetic “Oh, god” as his predicament bore its way home. It was impossible to stay where he was, for the needles were working their way further in every second, but he was afraid to ask Byrd again for help.
“You want me to try again?” Byrd asked.
“All right!” Neil hissed. “But this time you better damn well not let go!”
Byrd grabbed him by the hands and slowly lifted him up. It took a great exertion; and just as Neil was almost at the balancing point, and could feel his deliverance, down he went again.
“Oh, Byrd, please,” Neil pleaded. “Jesus, get me out of here.”
There was something so defeated in his tone that Byrd finally took pity on him and pulled him out; and Neil waddled home like the Tin Man, whimpering, his arms held stiffly out from his sides.
Well, I won’t have to worry about that little prick for a while anyway, Byrd thought. It’ll take months to get all that cactus out.
“Neil! Neil! For god’s sake, what happened?” Cait screamed in hysteria when he came in.
“Byrd did it!” Neil choked out, sobbing in spite of himself.
“Byrd! Where the hell is he?”
“I’m here,” Byrd said, coming inside.
“How did this happen? And don’t tell me any lies, or it’ll just go worse for you!”
“I don’t know,” Byrd said. “I guess he fell off the foundation of that old house into the cactus.”
“And what did you have to do with it?”
“Nothing! I was trying to get him out.”
“I bet! Well, I’ll deal with you later! We’ve got to get this cactus out of him!”
Cait spent the next two hours with a pair of tweezers and pliers pulling the spines out, but Neil still walked like a scarecrow because all summer some of them were in too deep, or else they were too small to find. All the while she pulled them, Cait muttered such things as “Jesus! I never saw so much cactus in my life! Not in the whole goddamned Sonoran Desert!”
In the end, she couldn’t find a way to blame Byrd, but she was still mad and had the nagging feeling that he had gotten away with something. But Byrd told himself he didn’t care. He had realized, once and for all, that Neil was her favorite and always would be. Probably it was because they were the same in so many ways. Cait always said that she identified with Neil because he was the middle child, “a lost child,” just like she had been. Yeah, the oldest son, Byrd thought. That’s always been a terrible position to be in!
But Byrd knew that the real reason Cait favored Neil was that she didn’t really know who she was, and neither did he. They had that in common, so they understood each other. She had unwittingly put her finger on it when she said “the lost child.” They were both lost, just not in the sense that she had implied. Byrd felt sorry for both of them, but he knew that he wouldn’t ever look to his mother for approval, or anything else again. At the age of twelve, he knew that, except for his father, he was alone; and his father was drifting farther away all the time. For the first time the prospect of facing the world alone, completely alone, came to him; and it was scary. The joy he had felt all day suddenly faded into just another depression.

Brent Hightower
Copyright 2008 Brent Hightower
Cover Image, Zdzislaw Beksinski