A Straight Shot of Politics

A blog from a gentleman of the Liberal political persuasion dedicated to right reason, clear thinking, cogent argument, and the public good.

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Location: Columbus, Ohio, United States

I have returned from darkness and quiet. I used to style myself as "Joe Claus", Santa Claus’ younger brother because that is what I still look like. I wrote my heart out about liberal politics until June of 2006, when all that could be said had been said. I wrote until I could write no more and I wrote what I best liked to read when I was young and hopeful: the short familiar essays in Engish and American periodicals of 50 to 100 years ago. The archetype of them were those of G.K. Chesterton, written in newspapers and gathered into numerous small books. I am ready to write them again. I am ready to write about life as seen by the impoverished, by the mentally ill, by the thirty years and more of American Buddhist converts, and by the sharp eyed people [so few now in number] with the watcher's disease, the people who watch and watch and watch. I am all of these.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

The Faces Of Worry And Pain

As an inveterate watcher, I observe very few truly happy people over the age of twenty-five. Hot blood, hormones, and a new day practically force some happiness on you in your youngest adulthood. The new days are still so truly new. But nearly every other face I see is distorted with some fantasy of worry, annoyance, or discomfort--never here, never now, never actually prepared to enjoy a new day, the soft and spicy scent of flowering crabapple blooms, a pleasant lunch, or a good joke.

I make a lot of jokes, for I am happy. I have worries, discomforts, and annoyances, but I know that, ultimately, they do not matter. Ultimately all that matters is the new day. I know this because I have endured financial ruin and penury, as well as deteriorated mental health, and have lived to tell the tale.

I also know this because I have been taught to remind myself daily of my approaching death, and because I have received Buddhist teaching both on how to deal with death and how to make use of life. You can read a little bit about it here.

A mind like mine which is always "on", always watching, always fingering the English language like a favored ring, sees much absurdity both in language and in life--and the jokes I make with friends of co-workers come from this.

A joke is a piece of the present moment. You cannot "get" a joke without being here now and shaking yourself for an instant out of fantasy about the past or anticipation of the future. Getting the joke short circuits both of these.

As a jokester, as a motley fool, and as a mentally ill man [which the King's fools of yore frequently were] I know that the glimpse of the present, the now, is not always welcome or appreciated. Many are afraid of the present. It cannot be manipulated like fantasies of the past or the future. There are no self-chosen roles in the present--hero, victim, bystander. There is no autobiography in the present, only biography. Things happen, you react.

A joke happens and you react. Who reacts? Who are you, alone and nameless, here and now, after deserting your worries, and bereft of a self-chosen role? Where are you other than here? How are you other than involuntarily more alert? What are you, really?

These are the questions we are afraid of when we are suddenly tricked into the present. And our fear of them is the true reason we are not happy, and our faces are so full of pain. Hot blood, and the craving for fun that comes with it, fun in bed, fun in a club, fun in anywhere and everywhere, masks the questions for the young, who frequently venture into the present without fear and are generally, if unthinkingly, happy.

When I greet the young, morning shift, fun bunnies--Diana, Amanda, Jake, and Chet--of Starbuck's--where the fun and happiness are packaged in modular components, reassembled from carefully developed plans for each specific location, and polished up to a well-oiled machine of profit--I get a glimpse of my own now tempered hot blood, fast-flowing hormones, and new days.

Amanda is so continuously full of giggles, smiles, and chirping chatter, that once, when I saw her at a bus stop, with her face fully in repose, I literally did not know who she was, and when I found out, I was stunned to see that she was classically beautiful, with the beauty of dark brunette hair, chiseled profile, and delicately shaped lips surrounded by creamy skin and a faint soft down of body hair. If you are old enough, think of the young Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet, and you will have it nailed.

Diana is in the process of deliberately transforming herself, through diet and exercise, from the plump little small-town girl of high-school into the shapely and sophisticated hair-stylist [her "real" job] that she always envied and admired. It's both fun and challenging, and she still is unsatisfied by the shape of her booty. I understand what she's getting at, but am rather taken with it just as it is.

Jake and Ted are working through the tall, lean goofiness of early male youth. Jake is a little further along. He's handsomer, and already has the patina of confidence that comes to a man who knows that a lot of women are attracted to him. Ted still has to contend with glasses, a little bit of late acne, and a more hazy sense of his fully adult style. But both are surrounded by the atmosphere of half-unconscious sexual tension and possibility that working in the close quarters behind the cash register and the espresso bar imposes on all of them.

At those distances the pheneromes are constantly tickling the nose as the four of them rotate through filling the pastry cabinet to manning the register to swishing the steam through the foaming milk and banging the dead coffee out of the pressure locked cup with the hefty black handle.

But since I watch, and watch carefully; since I listen, and listen closely; I know that happiness in Starbuck's is compelled to meet actual corporate standards: how quickly you are greeted, whether your name is remembered and mentioned, when the baristas know it, and whether you have been wished a "nice day" as you leave.

Heidi, the manager of the Starbuck's I frequent, is very much the corporate maven, even at 22, and is always explaining this to job applicants and new employees at one of the tables while I sit in the overstuffed armchair listening to the hip music on Starbuck's own satellite radio channel.

They think of everything.

All this is, perhaps, why you see so very few Starbuck's baristas over the age of twenty-five--there is too much to worry about with the demand to be happy for the sake of the corporation, and worry itself eventually takes the bloom off the cheeriest greeting.

Think about it. How would your day go if you constantly had to ask yourself if you were happy enough?

Heidi herself is what the French call gamine, a little flittering sparrow with a cap of close cut dark hair, a delicate-boned face with a narrow chin, and a head that cocks slightly to one side or the other as she wishes you the nice day. She is friendly, in the classic Starbuck's way, but there is already hanging over her heart the veil of corporate worry.

I very much hope that she moves into middle management quickly. To the eyes of hyperacusis that I own, the strain of store management is already beginning to steal tiny fragments of her happy youth, week in and week out. She has the management skills to climb the ladder. Her Starbuck's is one of the best run that I have ever encountered and is a showpiece of the Starbuck's ethos. But the demand for constant and unwavering happiness at the register or the espresso bar is a harsh taskmaster.

It is sad to think that all these fine young folks are highly likely to become what I see everyday in the lobby of the building where I work or the sidewalks of the street where I catch my bus. To turn into a bleach-blond fortyish woman with a red slash of lipstick on a habitually downturned mouth, totally unaware that the blood red lips make it perfectly clear to the whole world that she is fundamentally unsatisfied with her life and her job. To transform into the balding man with the hunched shoulders in a badly fitting suit too cheap to be enjoyable, wondering if the latest proposal will drop like a lead balloon, just like the last one.

In people such as these I see the heros, villains, and bystanders of ten minutes ago, ten hours ago, ten days ago, ten years ago. I don't really see anything else except a body slowly stiffening into a permanently unhappy old age. And I certainly don't see the least hint of what they were at the age of my favorite baristas.

Essentially, we are what we worry about. But if we learn that our worries are futile, we can finally stay long enough in the present to truly become ourselves. I have taken a vow to cultivate endless compassion and loving kindness toward anyone I encounter. Hence I use my fertile mind, and the still mercurial moods of a medicated bi-polar, to make people laugh.

I know that behind the laughter is great fear, and that constantly terrifying people with themselves may not appear all that compassionate. It really is. And to refrain from it merely because convention says not to frighten people, even with laughter, is what my teachers very literally call "idiot compassion".

In my life, no "idiot compassion" need apply. Since my young friends behind the espresso bar, can see that I am with them in the present when I walk in the door, ready to savor the real happiness, for all it being carefully planned and corporate, since it is truly their youthful happiness, I look and behave toward them like few my age.

I look and behave like Joe Claus, just as I do here, with a deadpan face and a twinkle in the eye since I smell the pheneromes, too.

Add to that my bushy grey beard, my leather wrapped cane with the three blue beads dangling from it, an occasional daffy hat, and my Buddhist prayer beads that are commonly wrapped around my left wrist--ready for me to sit quietly somewhere else in the building and do some Buddhist practice--and I am, for the kids, a "character" who undoubtedly is laughed at, gossiped about, and cherished for eccentricity, when he is not present, and the trade at the cash register slows down.

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