30 November, 2018

Rubber Tramp Stories: The Story of R (Retread)

[I first published this story on my old American Re:visionary Blog. But, as I grow and expand my Rubber Tramp Stories, I thought it was appropriate to include them all under one tag on one blog.]

The train station in Carlinville, Illinois is nothing more than a ventilated brick box. Cement floor, a single bench, no heat for the winter and not even a fan for warmer weather. I got there around 11:30 in the morning. The train to Chicago wasn't going to arrive until 3:30 that afternoon. The sky was cloudy, the temperature cold, and it was spitting a particularly unforgiving rain that made me grateful for I didn't have to walk the miles from Litchfield.

Nothing about Carlinville impressed me enough to get wet wandering around to explore it. I noticed one clearly No-Tell-Motel on the way into town. (The sign listed a price differential between single and double beds, and the ambiance suggested that there should have also been a price differential for hourly and nightly rates.) I also took note of several bars, none of which looked trustworthy enough to carry my pack into. Other than the rail, which rolled by a deserted grain elevator, there was very little left to describe. Like every other town that grew up along Route 66, it was impacted by completion of the I-55 corridor. And it was clearly impacted again by changes in the railroad industry.

I was alone in the brick box for about 20 minutes before he hurried in and asked if I had a cigarette. And if I was slightly inclined to dig deeper into Carlinville -- named, according to an optimistically written Wikipedia page, after a former Governor -- talking to R would have changed my mind.
He assured me that if I was looking to get laid, that all I had to do was walk down the street.

"Ah," I said. "So they're trying to fish outside of the gene pool?"

"Gene pool. Yeah, man You got that right!"

A man on the run from something has a distinct body language. Jerky movements. Disheveled look. Given the mostly pale demographic of the town and -- except for the Indians who worked in the hotels and the Mexicans who did the service industry grunt work -- R stuck out simply because he was black.

After I was unable to give him a cigarette, he asked where I was going and where I'd come from. So I gave him the quick and dirty version. Hearing that I walked from Staunton to Litchfield elicited a wide-eyed shake of the head.

"Why'd you do that?"

"I had to get here."

"You didn't have a car?"

"If I had a car, I wouldn't need to catch a train."

That seemed to satisfy him for the most part. It also gave him a door to prove the current events of his life more interesting than mine.

R was not from Carlinville. He was from Springfield, Illinois, but came there via St. Louis. And he did it for a girl. The part that seemed to surprise him, even though he was standing in a brick box train depot waiting for the train that would take him back to Springfield with his few possessions in a 33 gallon garbage bag, was that it didn't work out.

"She's a white girl," he said. "And she's... you know... not thick." He repeated this several times throughout the story, as if he was trying to convince himself that it should have, and for those very reasons.

The story unfolded something like this: he met the woman he was trying to escape the day after he got out of jail. R explained that yes, "It was drug related stuff," but that he had cleaned up his act since and was no longer doing whatever it was that got him locked up. But, he admitted that, upon his release, he was on the hunt for the one thing he couldn't get while he was incarcerated. And it just so happened that he got call from a former cellie who had a girlfriend who had a friend.

"I was looking for a one night stand," R maintained. "But it didn't turn into that."

Upon his release, R had been sent to a half-way house to ensure that his rehabilitation would take. After one night with this girl -- whose name, I have to admit, I don't remember -- she took it upon herself to harass his Parole Officer and the Missouri State Department of Corrections to secure his release from the half-way house so that he could move in with her. When calling St. Louis didn't help, R, said, she drove from Carlinville to St. Louis five days a week in order to visit him and track down the dodgy P.O. Naturally, the development seemed to work to his advantage, so he didn't argue. And while he never uttered the word, the confluence of events must have seemed to him, at the time, serendipitous. And when his parole officer secured his release from the half-way house... making it clear that his only reason was to get the woman off his back... R thought he'd stumbled onto the love of his life.

His first indication that something was amiss was when he showed up in Carlinville and discovered that not only did his true love have two kids -- from two different fathers -- and that both of them were medicated for educational and developmental issues, but that she also lived with her sister, her sister's flavor of the week, and HER two kids.

To hear him tell it, his one true love did nothing except sleep all day, eat ice cream and want to fuck. She didn't want to deal with her kids. She didn't want to deal with her sister's kids. Apparently the sugar she ingested while watching Maury Povich was only to be used in the pursuit of more ice cream and sex.

To hear him tell it, she screwed him raw. And in every way possible. And when he was too exhausted to get it up "I'm not as young as I used be, you know" she would insist that he do something else to fill her appetites. And then she expected him to take care of the kids, who wouldn't listen to him. And then she expected him to make her a sandwich. And then clean up the house. And then go buy her some ice cream.

I was waiting for him to admit to something involving a ball gag and a french maid's outfit.
Instead, he told me about changing the sheets on the bed.

Apparently, there was a day when his own true love actually left the house -- for reasons he didn't explain -- and he took it upon himself to change out the sheets on the bed. She had told him he could find clean sheets in a Santa Claus bag in the hall closet. He found the bag and starting digging through pillow cases and sundry unmatched soft goods until he stumbled upon something that wasn't so -- soft.

Actually there were several.

"I'm telling you," he said, "she could open a dildo flea market!"

He found out later, however, that not all the dildos were for her. Apparently she was hoping that R's time in prison made him a more amenable catcher to a stiff pitch.

He reiterated several times that he might have loved her "a little," but "The bitch is crazy, and those ain't my kids!" And while he never said so, I'm sure the Santa sack of toys didn't help,

Even love has it's limits.


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12 November, 2018

Letters from Trumplandia: Invisible City, Part 4


Two people in as many days have died on the streets as Louisville settles into the first cold snap of the year. One of them died next to a local homeless shelter that, in theory, provides overnight protection from the elements for the city's homeless.

The first cold snap is hard because no one ever seems to see it coming -- in spite of past precedence. I see this as a fundamentally positive thing about human nature... it's our ability to hope for the best regardless of experience. But when it comes, no matter how much those of us engaged in homeless outreach try and plan for it, it still hits like a steel toe boot to the nuts.

We did a better than average job planning for it this year. I'm not the only one who obsessively watches weather patterns, so between the merry OCD/ grumpy old men in our group and the lovely folks that donate there money and donate supplies for us to pass out every week, we were able to get a few things together.., hand warmers, sternos, some coats and blankets and sleeping bags.

But there are moments in outreach when the wheels and cogs are laid bare and there is nothing to do except embrace the sadness and anger just so you can find more people before the hot meals get too cold and the supply of socks and handwarmers run out.

We've been serving a younger couple on our regular route for a few weeks. He's a more or less fresh out of a detox program. They say they want to get to Florida, closer to family. Last night was a White Flag night here in Louisville, which means the temperature is cold enough that shelters will open up and allow more than the usual number of people in to get out of the dangerous temperatures.

Unless you're on the Permanent Ban List.

And when we mentioned that it might be a good idea to get to a shelter, even it meant being separated (because none of the shelters here have facilities for couples or families, which means that couples are separated and fathers have to sleep in a different space than their wives and children). But he told me that since he was on the permanent ban list, he couldn't go in. Not even on a White Flag night.

As far as I know, this couple made it through the night. But the temperatures this week aren't going get better.

Later that night we met up with other outreach volunteers near a new encampment. Another couple.
They had a tent, at least, but no blankets, no sleeping bags, no kind of heat. And meanwhile, outside of the Wayside Mission on Jefferson Street, people were sleeping on the sidewalks, some without blankets, and a few with no shoes.

There's nothing worse than feeling like you fell short even when you do your best. And even if there wasn't such a thing as a Permanent Ban List that includes White Flag Nights, the fact is there isn't even enough beds for people willing and able to get into the shelters. The number of homeless folks on the street are up and it only breaks into the public conversation as something unsightly that people don't want to see through their NIMBY sunglasses.

There's nothing like the sick brick I get in my stomach when I see someone out on outreach knowing they may not survive the night. There's nothing like the dread of knowing that the odds are someone will find them in the morning, dead.

And someone finds them... anger and sadness doesn't quite cover it. Not by a longshot. And when they're found footsteps from a place that, in theory, should have been able to prevent it

Anger and sadness don't feel like nearly enough.



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05 November, 2018

Letters from Trumplandia: Politics and the Phenomenon of Craving






A.A., like any other organization dedicated to a single idea, has it's own mantras and jingoisms. The Serenity Prayer has been co-opted by our culture -- especially the part about asking for courage to accept those things we cannot change, since it pretty much feels like no one has control over anything pretty much all the time. One Day at a Time and  Easy Does It get tossed out at regular intervals by a fairly large cross-section of people -- larger even than the cross-section of people who are among the 10% of people who have that particular allergy to booze that makes us one day either get to a meeting or crawl into a ditch. 

As a culture, we like mantras and jingoisms. They reduce complex ideas  down to sound bites that are easier to chew on. We like to be able reduce our moral, ethical, and spiritual life down to easily marked and remembered catch phrases that will rise above the one-liners advertisers throw at us to get us to buy the Next New Shiny Thing.

And since is a Political Season -- November 6 being an election day -- we have been further bombarded, traumatized, and had our central nervous systems cauterized by political ads. Incumbents who want to keep their jobs. Up and comers who want to unseat the incumbents. And we are being extolled, ONE MORE TIME, that this election, is The Most Important Election of Our Generation.

If you're wondering why I started with Alcoholics Anonymous and led into the election, it's pretty simple. It's what we in A.A. call The Phenomenon of Craving. An alcoholic drinks and the craving kicks in and there is no common sense that will make us stop.  Politics, and the emotional urgency its dealers push on the American people -- nearly all of whom are drunk on one brand of politics or another (that includes the politics of apathy) -- kicks in that Phenomenon of Craving. We can't help ourselves. We drink in that sweet, intoxicating moral urgency and sense of mission that will disappear as soon as the election results are in and we are all, once again, pressed with our individual tyrannies of the present that will drive back into the intoxicating arms of mantras, jingoism, and name-calling -- 

all while the Laughing Boys who are in charge and will most likely continue to be in charge regardless of which political party you hang your hopes on carry on making us hate one another so we're too busy seeing what the hell they're doing. 

Common sense, in both cases, is roundly ignored.

My politics of choice and experience tends to fall somewhere near the Far Left -- though not far enough to swallow every last drop in the bottle. My politics and my world view are probably best described by old radical standard (that fewer and fewer radicals know anymore),  The Internationale:





I've sang The Internationale drunk in a room stock full of well-intended liberals who fantasize about fighting fascists but never will. I've sang The Internationale sober with all the sad passion of Amazing Grace, waiting for God to tell me if I really need to fight, if this cup is really mine, or if I'm just one more vainglorious sap who is hoping for victory against the cyclical tide of historical implosion. I've sang The Internationale in a room full of unionists who barely knew the words and who probably would have refused to sing if they'd known where the song actually comes from. I've sang The Internationale with friends, drunk on bourbon and dizzy on didactic rhetoric -- only one of whom I actually believe could take on the fascists as a personal mission for the Almighty... and woe to them if that ever actually happens. I have sang The Internationale but I have never seen the collective fraternity, community, or egalitarianism it is supposed to represent... certainly not on the Left and never, ever, in all my years (including the ones growing up in the ultra-conservative Rust Belt) on the Right. 

And that is why the Radical Left is losing and why, if they don't rethink strategies that isolate them along ideological lines so tenuous that the lists of enemies is longer than their lists of friends and comrades, they will continue to lose. 

There is no moral urgency to this New Wave Fascism. The sense of inevitability people feel -- and believe me, people on all sides feel it, especially those that cry out against it from every social media corner of the country --  that causes them to call this election one more Most Important Election of Our Generation comes from something much deeper, something more dangerous, and something more profane. 

It springs forth from the shadow heart of us all, the evil that will not die until the last trumpet sounds and against which we have been fighting since man's evolutionary ancestors developed enough cognitive ability to dream darkly and to commit their hands to making those dreams happen.

So drink up, my friends. I'm not saying not to vote. If you still have the right to vote then you should, if for no other reason than to prove the cynics and oligarchs wrong. But Easy Does It. We need to take these days One Day at a Time, but it helps to be on the look out for that hangover. Because in spite of the jingoism, life will march on after this election is in the books.

And.. get to a meeting.

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24 October, 2018

Letters from Trumplandia: Invisible City, Part 3

Letters from Trumplandia
Part of outreach means we end up seeing some the same people over and over. Sometimes we don't see certain folks for a span of time because they went inside, or got sober, or started getting treatment for their mental or addiction issues.  And that's always a good thing. I'm always happy to see our folks, but there's a few that I would be happier to never see again, if only because they need to get off the street for their own safety or health.

But sometimes we don't see people and we feel the dread in the pits of our stomachs.

The area around Wayside Mission is a heavy population area, not just because of the homeless shelter, but because of the large homeless population that lives adjacent to the shelter. Some of them won't go in -- concerns over safety, petty street feuds that spill over or are exacerbated by the shelter's policy of giving some residents the job of policing the others, regardless of their capacity to be able to do so, and the shelter's policy of splitting families --  and some of them can't because of legitimate bans due to violence or drug use that endangers other people.

Amanda and I hadn't served down there in a while because of shifts in the population and changes in the routes over the last year that we hope does a more effective job of serving as many of the community as possible. Historically, people have been run off from the downtown underpasses and around the shelter at three watershed moments here in Louisville: before Derby, before the State Fair, and when cold weather sets in. The motivations for these are different, but not really. The city likes to "clean up" it's image for big money events like Derby and the Fair, and whitewashing the city's homeless community is one way, besides planting more rose bushes and cutting the grass along the highway, that the city does that.

LMPD annually engages in a more focused harassment of the city's homeless at the onset of cold weather, apparently for the benefit of the homeless. By all accounts, the thought is that by putting pressure on the community to move on, the city is helping push them to the shelters or other services.

Mick Parsons, blog, TrumplandiaThis sort of thinking is an example of the staggering disconnect between the bean counters in Metro Council Chambers and reality.

But as the official and unofficial sweeps continue, it never ceases to amaze me who is able to fall through the cracks. This past week, Amanda and I went with the route that currently serves the underpasses as extra support and to make it easier to pass out meals and supplies.

We were also tasked with finding a family that had been in the area the last few weeks -- a couple with two small children. Usually, we serve them in their vehicle, but they have insisted to outreach workers in the past that they go into Wayside at night. This isn't the first time we've heard this, or seen it in practice. The city has very limited resources for homeless families. So when they do go to shelters, families are split up.

This is one of those cavernous niches that the homeless fall into; because even when there aren't any children involved, and even if they can prove they're married, couples are separated -- effectively isolating them from the one person they count on for mutual aid and survival. And while this can sometimes help vulnerable people escape dangerous situations, the families are collateral damage.

We didn't find the family. Their vehicle was not even parked out front, in spite of the fact that it was spotted earlier that afternoon when the kids were riding their bikes on the street. If we had seen their vehicle, that would have meant they were at least in the shelter waiting room before the staff at Wayside split them up for the night. Because it wasn't there, there is no telling where they were on a night when the overnight temperatures were going to reach freezing.

Sometimes it's who you don't see that gets to you.

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16 October, 2018

Rubber Tramp Stories 1: Big Rock Candy Mountain is Hollow

I met a hobo once, through a mutual friend. He came in on a southbound CSX and hopped off about seven blocks from my house, near a McDonalds. 

The only number he had was my friend JP's number. Naturally, JP called and invited me to hang out at his place in Middletown. He was always wanting to show me his world -- the world of trains and hobos. I've never met a man so in tune with his world vision, so able to bridge the connection between belief and action. Nearly everyone has ideas. Very few people actually live them. And while I think I'm not shabby in that particular area, I always embrace -- even if I am sometimes amused and/or frustrated -- by his attempts to educate me. 

Although I can't prove it, I think sometimes he thinks because I've spent a good deal of my time in school that I haven't lived.  This point of view isn't a new one, and in his case it isn't rooted in the usual good ol' American anti-intellectualism; no, for JP, the fact is that formal education abandoned him and he's managed to be a pretty well-read and self-educated guy anyway. But when he called and told me I needed to come meet his friend, I knew what he really meant. 

He meant "You're never going to believe THIS motherfucker."

JP and I haven't traded You-won't-believe-this-crazy-motherfucker stories, although we've traded here.
plenty of others.  And no, I haven't hopped trains -- mostly because a part-time hobo with a house out in Oakland named Dirty Face told me, without skipping a beat, that I was too old to start at 42. But I have done my fair share of traveling... as what the old timers would call a Rubber Tramp. When you travel off the beaten path for any length of time, you end up meeting some really interesting people... ones that I wrote about

So made it over to meet JP's hobo friend. I'll call him D. D is neither his given name nor his hobo name -- yes, that's a thing. He was still a little jumpy by the time I got there, but he'd had a shower and JP fixed him a plate and some coffee.

D talked primarily about two things -- a friend who died and his graduate work in Para-psychology. His friend died when he got trapped under an unstable load on a train he'd hopped. He was usually pretty smart, D said of his friend. But sometimes it just happens.

He was more animated talking about his graduate work. He was writing a book, he said. The whole basis of his thesis was that happiness is infectious, and if he just tried to get people to smile, that it would make the world a better place. I pointed out there was something very sociological about that and D shook his head. It was about the spirit, he said. And people, he said, almost always get that shit wrong.

People act like the big spirit is in the sky, he said. But really, it's under our feet. He told us about his epiphany, about how the Earth is hollow and how there's not a molten core at the center, but a city where a beings of a higher plane live.  People keep looking up for inspiration, he said. But all a long it's under their feet. Like tree roots.

I hung out for a little while. We talked and listened to Sun Ra records and drank coffee. But then it was time to go. And while I can't quite get behind the idea that the Earth is hollow, I found myself paying a bit more attention to the terra firma.

[Check out my friend JP's work here. It's good for your soul. I promise.]

Thanks for reading.

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10 October, 2018

Letters from Trumplandia: Invisible City, Part 2

[This is Part 2 of a series that I'll add to intermittently. It may come in waves of two or three posts in a row, or it may be weeks or even months in between. The focus of 'Invisible City' is my experience working with and around the homeless community. The first part is here. Thanks for reading.]

In addition to the usual route paperwork, I carried a list of 100 or so names. 

These are the names of people whose camps were scheduled to be cleared as of Monday October 8th. As of this writing, the three camps in question are cleared. Although there's a certain inevitability to this, it's hard for me to ignore the timing. Not only is it running up to an important mid-term election, with the mayor up for re-election, but -- more importantly -- cold weather is coming. And although not everyone had moved as of last Sunday, I wanted to carry the names of the people we will need to look for -- our organization and every other outreach organization that serves the Louisville's homeless community. 

With cold weather coming, the main thing at the front of my mind is that once again, there will not be enough beds, even for those willing to enter the shelters. The city will say there's enough, because they always do... or actually, they say nothing and point to the various shelters with an inferred, collective shrug that allows them to pass the buck. After all, the homeless don't vote.

But we didn't find anyone on that list this past week. We may when we go back out to serve. While there are some factors that make how camps disperse somewhat predictable, the truth is it's hard to predict what any one individual will do. We did find a guy in the middle of a seizure. We saw him on the sidewalk on a side street, and when we checked on him, my wife realized she knew him from her job at a local men's shelter. He was prone to seizures, and because the homeless in Louisville no longer have someplace to store their things.

While we were there with him -- he was in the process of trying to stand up and get his bearings back
-- one woman yelled down to us that he was on spice... which he clearly wasn't. Another drove by and asked if we needed him to "dial 5-0" and we assured him we did not. The only reason we hesitated in dialing 911 was because the man was in the process of getting back up on his feet and would have turned down transport to the hospital, anyway. As if being out on the street in Louisville isn't scary enough, he's got to deal with frequent seizures that leave him incapacitated for short periods, increasing his vulnerability. He's in the process of trying to get disability, but there is no streamlined process. And, because he's homeless and has no where to store his stuff, he has to carry his entire medical history with him ALL THE TIME.

Then, adding insult to injury, the default position anyone might take in seeing him is that when he's in the midst of a seizure -- a condition that is not his fault -- he will be mistaken for a drug addict. Because that's where people's minds go, almost every single time.



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04 October, 2018

Letters from Trumplandia: Invisible City, Part 1

Trumplandia, Mick Parsons, Dirty Sacred River
Bone thin and tiny even before she tried to fold herself into the air, her eyes were large, dark, and brimming.  She looked young; too young to be living under an underpass or in a camp that is slated for clearing by the city. It was Sunday night and she looked like she needed to be somewhere rushing through homework she'd put off all weekend instead of looking towards one more night in a homeless camp.  Her eyes told me she was almost as scared of being found as she was of whatever led her to where she was at. She hadn't found short term ways to coping -- the shit spice (lately mixed with Fentanyl)  available on the street for 50 cents a hit, or booze, or the needle. The outreach workers who found her said she wasn't alone. That some guy had been hanging around and disappeared when they approached.

I'd seen her some downtown, and she was rarely alone.  Some of the other outreach workers wanted to try and find out if she was, indeed, underage. And even if she wasn't underage, we were all concerned that she was a victim of trafficking... or that if she wasn't then, she would be soon enough. It wasn't just idle. The camp where she was staying has been the root of several reports of what looks like trafficking. But stories aren't proof and proof is hard to come by.

The city's recourse is to clear the camp, which it has started the ball rolling to do. The outreach
Louisville homeless compassionate city not
organization I volunteer with and other small organizations try to work with the Coalition for Homelessness and the city to find them resources, fast track them for housing (if possible) and at least keep in touch with them so that when they move, we can find them.

People who don't know that I do homeless outreach talk about the increase in Louisville's  homeless population. Part of that is due to some recent, temporary, policy changes on the part of the city. The annual clear outs for Derby and the State Fair did not happen this year thanks to a ton of negative press the city garnered for razing a camp with no warning last year. But that sort of thing doesn't last. Politically rooted compassion lasts as about as long as the news cycle -- which here can only bear so much content that verges somewhere near actual news before it implodes under the weight of college sports, and whatever new that falls under the flag shadow of Trumplandia. There are a fair number of people here that want to complain more about bike lanes that aren't really bike lanes and play partisan politics rather than actually fix things... and several of them keep getting elected to Metro Council.

There was no way to prove she wasn't underage, and CPS rarely, if ever, works on a Sunday night anyway. I suppose we could have called LMPD, but it's crap shoot with them. If we get a good cop, they will try and help. If we don't, they'll just slice and dice people's tents and ticket them for littering. We were able to at least get this young woman to agree to go find the resources we pointed her to.

Most of the time, that's the biggest win we get in those situations.


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24 September, 2018

At Home Along the Dirty, Sacred River, Part 1

Where we love is home -- home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts. - Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.



Ohio River at Louisville and Jefferson, IN. 1928
Home has traditionally been a complex issue for me. I've written before about how home is a person, not a place, and that is still very much true. But it also follows that while I have settled down... which is to say, I'm stationary far more than is natural for me... the truth is that the concept of home is one that I continue to struggle with. In particular, other people's notions of home have given me nothing but vexation for decades.

Yes. Decades.

Let me explain.

I live in Louisville, Kentucky. I like it here. Of all the places I've lived, it probably best matches the landscape inside my head. It's both rural and urban, straightforward and urbane, full of possibility and weighed down with deep dark problems that infiltrate nearly every good thing that happens within its borders. Louisville is a small town with a few tall buildings; not because of its size, but because of the way it functions... and sometimes the way it doesn't function. I've lived in other places in Kentucky, from as far East as Menifee County to the rolling hilled-hypocrisy of Lexington. I've travelled the state over, too, from Covington to Corbin, from Morehead to Middlesboro, from Paducah to Pikeville.1 And except for a decade on and off, I've spent most of the last 30 years here. Kentucky is one of the few places where -- for the exception of  Lexington, which I can never quote forgive myself for -- I have always felt at home. Calling Kentucky home brings up all sorts of complications, the second most challenging being that it's the sort of home you're expected to leave and (maybe) eventually return to.

The most challenging part of being at home in Kentucky is that Kentucky is more or less particular about who it claims.

I run into this problem often in literary circles. It's increasingly common enough to NOT be from Louisville, or from Kentucky. But in literary circles... probably because Kentucky writers are once again an exportable commodity... because of or in spite of our Tin Pot Governor's dismissal of the arts... there's even more of the sometimes overt, sometimes covert protectionism of Kentucky culture and geographical identification.2

To be fair, I haven't been EXCLUDED because I'm not from Kentucky. That would be like saying no one reads my shit because I'm just one more cis-gendered white guy in America.3 I haven't been excluded, but living here creates a certain bias on the part of others about what kind of writer I orta be. Literary event organizers here tend to look for that commercially consistent version of "authentic" voices -- authentic but pedigreed, of course -- and while I can claim a lot of experience, many miles traveled, and a regional upbringing, the abstract lines that make Kentucky separate from the other cleaved pieces of geography that make up the Ohio River Valley delineate the cultural boundary, too.

Or, simply put: I'm from Ohio.

True, it's Southern Ohio... Southwest Ohio, to be exact, which is about as culturally divergent from the rest of the state as Paducah is from Pikeville. Ohio, like Kentucky, could be split into (at least) four different states if you look at geography, culture, and other demographic points. Actually, you could cut the Southeast corner of the state and slide it nicely into a larger state called Appalachia... a state that would include not only part of Ohio, but a fair chunk of Kentucky and Pennsylvania too, along with West Virginia.

For me, though, the map as drawn has less to do with the culture of where I live than geography, which transcends... and sometimes confounds... cartography. The dirty scared river's long and storied history as a major commercial artery that eventually opened up the West to the trials, terrors, and seeming inevitability of Manifest Destiny have made permanent imprint on the geography of the nation. And while it's true that the Ohio River isn't as prominent a commercial artery as it used to be, the fact is that without it there would have been no place for wagons, trains, roads, or interstates to be laid. The river, diverted as it is, still runs and still has a say over everything from where people live, how they get back and forth to work, and sometimes, how the weather impacts the area.4 So, I will never be a Kentucky writer. But every breath, drop of blood, and bone in my body is from the river valley.

And there's something to that, too.

________________________________________________

1. I even went to Fancy Farm once. There is no better explanation of the political landscape of this Commonwealth than Fancy Farm.
2. This actually has much deeper roots than Herr Bevin. He's just one more in a long series of yahoos and crankyanks who think they know what's best for Kentucky without ever actually spending any time in the state's underbelly.
3.I recently had coffee with another writer here who made that kind of observation, but I don't agree. There's room for everyone and all the voices need to be heard. I'll keep scribbling in my basement, unabated.
4, Watch a tornado laden storms hit the valley and split in half just to pass over Louisville. It happens. A lot.



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28 June, 2018

All along the multiverse/Traversing the Big Empty, Part 3 ( Consequences of a Nation)

[continued from Part 2]

[Somewhere in Satan's Taint, NM]

The absence of etiquette and the abandonment of common sense is what has placed The United States in the position it's in.

Not (just) Republicans. Not (just) Democrats. Something more fundamental in human nature is at work in all of these goings on -- children placed in cages, used as pawns to justify putting their parents in cages, too. The Supreme Court upholds Trumps travel ban and upholds the manipulation tactics of a California-based "pregnancy clinic" that doesn't have to pony up to the truth that they are anti-abortion. Regardless of your stance on abortion, the fact is that the Supreme Court has legalized the absence of transparency... and so has the Trump administration, as a matter of fact. We're being told we're going to be more free... free from those pesky regulations that protect (sort of) public water, help protect (sort of) public wild lands, and help protect the citizens of the United States (sort of) from being the targets of usury and economic piracy.  We're going to be so free because we won't know any difference. We're going to be so free because that's the only information that we will be told. 

And we will eat it up like a quart of Ben & Jerry's.

We'll eat it up because it rings "true" based on all the Neoliberal propaganda we've grown up with. Staunch individualism + capitalism - NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard). We are such a large country, and there's still a lot about it that's beautiful. But we're a large country and as much as we say we're all Americans or whatever, the fact is we are basically clannish, provincial and paranoid. 

One of the things people learn in AA is that alcoholism is, in part, a response to unaddressed fears. My sponsor harps on this all the time. "We're afraid of either losing what we have or not getting what we want."  I want to suggest that this isn't just part of what drives alcoholics, or addicts of any stripe.
This is what has driven our foreign policy since World War II and driven our domestic policy (at least) since the Nixon Administration. And certainly the argument could be made that it was a causal factor in the American Revolution (though it was about taxes, not freedom), the Civil War, and every folly dating back to the crucifixion of Christ. We're scared that someone's going to take away something or we're scared we won't get what we want. 

Don't worry. We're not unique. It's an essentially human condition. We're biologically hardwired for fight or flight. The good news is we are capable of doing better. 

On a related note: 

Remember that toilet problem I mentioned in Part 2? Remember how I said they spent time trying to fix it and put us an hour behind schedule? 

Well the Assistant Conductor just announced that the toilets in Coach 11 are out of commission... because someone put something down there that wasn't supposed to go. Again.

The good news is I'm in coach 13. The bad news is, it could still cause the entire septic system go offline.

Progress is sometimes slower than I would prefer.

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27 June, 2018

All along the multiverse/Traversing the Big Empty, Part 2 ("Foreign Objects" and the San Bernardino Jerk)

[continued from Part 1]

[Northeast of Albuquerque NM, 26 June 2018]

So the thing about traveling by train is that there is at least one other inevitability you must embrace: you will (probably) not be on time. it's not that it can't happen. it's just that the odds are against it. Other than the near guarantee that I'll be within earshot of a crying child on an overnight trip (This is true on buses, trains, and planes. I always carry gun range quality ear plugs, just in case.), the only other thing I can promise is that, at least ONCE on any leg of a train trip, I will overhear someone complain about the train running late.

It's also not uncommon for the same person who complains about the train running late to be a smoker who also complains about not getting enough time to smoke.

The lesson here? If you're contributing to a problem, you're in a good position to be a part of the solution. In the case, shut up and be grateful for what smoke breaks  you get because, seriously, they don't have to. THEY DON'T HAVE TO. They cut a fresh air stop at San Bernardino because someone jerk thought the All Aboard call meant he had time to take his time and finish his cigarette and apparently didn't like it when the train left without him.

What's the take away there, Dear Friends and Readers? It only takes ONE jerk to ruin it for everyone.
Being part of a community -- even a temporary one created because everyone is on the same train -- means there are larger concerns. For example, when some person or persons unknown puts paper towels or other ... to quote Conductor Justin ... "Foreign Objects" down one of the vacuum toilets, it can cause the ALL THE TOILETS ON THE TRAIN NOT TO WORK. That happening can really affect the air quality in an enclosed coach. Larger concerns define -- or impact -- every aspect of travel, from the rule against "foreign objects" to the prohibition of pocket knives on air planes and Greyhound buses, to the limits on baggage size and weight, to [fill in the blank.] Yes, everyone wants to get where they're going. But that means EVERYONE WANTS TO GET WHERE THEY'RE GOING. EVERY ONE.

Contradicting or impeding common purposes -- those things that are bigger than any one of us -- naturally has consequences. The San Bernardino Jerk (as he is forever named) caused the cancellation of a fresh air break. Who ever the person or persons were who tried to flush "foreign objects" down one of the toilets caused a delay in Albuquerque (of all places) for repairs that has put the train a about an hour behind. 

And how will they make this time up? That's right. THEY WILL CUT THE FRESH AIR BREAKS.
It's not rocket science. It's just common sense and... etiquette.



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26 June, 2018

All along the multiverse /Traversing the Big Empty, Part 1 (A Nation of Consequences)

[East of Gallup, NM/ 26 June 2018]  
Unless you travel America along the ground, you don't really get a sense of how large a place it is.  Hopping airport to airport does give you a certain view of the size of things. People in transit make for some of the best people watching you can find -- and people watching is very nearly the best free entertainment there is. But crawling over the thin shell of the earth is really the only way to get a sense of size. People who have driven cross country will attest to this. Geography looks a lot less imposing on a map -- or on GPS to use the parlance of these digital times -- than it does in person.
I'm certain I've written somewhere, sometime before... probably on the old American Re:Visionary blog... about how our mode of transportation alters our perception of geography and changes how we look things. If you've ever tried to follow (what used to be) those blue lines on the map -- those two lane state routes that will take you everywhere the interstate does and more -- you begin to get a sense of how the interstate system forever altered not only how we look at this wide country we label The United States., but changed the actual geography... not only because of the landscape that was demolished, altered, or sliced up to make room for interstates, but the towns that cropped up or shriveled up and died because of the shift in traffic patterns.  And if you think this is only a byproduct of the modern transportation age, I would encourage you to look at the long and storied history of the dirty, sacred river the title of this blog refers to: The Ohio River.
Traveling by train (I'm pretty sure I've written before, too) is still by far the most genteel way to travel. What I tend to observe when people have difficulty traveling by train … or mass transit in general, including the old grey dog... is that they bring faulty expectations to the experience. You end up cramped together with people from different backgrounds, different cultures, different biases, different languages. You have to share bathroom facilities. You have to share common areas like the cafĂ© car, the dining car, the observation car, and the aisle. The rules are mostly etiquette and common sense -- though I have traveled enough back and forth across this turtle of a continent that I honestly question whether both etiquette and common sense have become so unfashionable as to be as mythical a concept as "truth, justice, and the American Way."
If you know me moderately well you know my thoughts on the use of laws. If you don't know me that well (and welcome, by the way!) then I will explain by paraphrasing Ammon Hennacy*:
Good people don't need them and bad people don't follow them, so what good are they?
I'll go one step further by quoting myself*:
Etiquette and Fine Art run the world.
One of the things you learn traveling is that laws and statutes mean far less in maintaining a civilized community than simple etiquette. While there are people in world who are consequence driven, I find that eventually people who exist in a consequence-driven frame of mind buckle under the yoke and bit.  On this particular train trip, for example, a guy is about to get tossed off the train in Albuquerque because in spite of all the signage and multiple warnings given, he simply can't wait for a fresh air break to smoke. I mean, I get it. As a smoker, I'm sympathetic to the nicotine urge. And yes, I'm sure it would be healthier to quit, but honestly people who tend to say that 1. have never smoked and  2. have never read any 12 step literature or understand the nature of addiction. In other words... yes, we're addicts.  Move on.
That being said... I also understand there are reasons why smoking is prohibited on trains and buses.  I also understand that the schedule takes priority over my nicotine addiction. This is something I signed on for when I bought my train ticket. It's part of the social contract. That's why, when we do get a fresh air break, I TAKE IT. Even in New Mexico, a state that has never been kind to me. Never. Ever.
We tend to overlook the importance of social contracts because we have decided that it is better to live in a country of prescribed laws than a community of shared understanding. That's because laws are easier. We mark our participation by whether we vote for the yahoos who are supposed to have our interests at heart, not really understanding the fact that the system, by its very nature, either burns out any evidence of actual altruism... if, in fact, politicians can feel something like altruism. We want laws to keep things fair... which is to say, we want laws to ensure that we keep whatever stuff we thing is ours. We want laws to maintain the peace while we stockpile guns for our own personal protection. We want law. But law is consequence driven. Which means, at some point, even the most law abiding citizen will break under the yoke and bit, causing those consequences to kick in.
Which is to say: if all we are is a nation of consequences and not conscious, it's no wonder we're in such trouble.
And we are in trouble. It doesn't take a long train ride to figure that one out.
[Continued in Part 2]



25 June, 2018

A baboon in La La Land



I wonder if the fundamental nature of LA changed when the common vernacular switched from Los Angeles to the monosyllabic "LA."

Granted, numerology HAS fallen out of favor... but then again, this is LA, where you can be everything from a sun worshipper to a vampire, a vapid consumerist to a dirty hippy, and everyone somehow manages to share the same sushi bar. This town is the first place I've ever been that doesn't have a general uniform... something that most people wear that identify them as either part of the living and working community or, well, not. In Lexington in the late 90's, the standard masculine uniform was khaki pants and some shade of green shirt. Keep in mind this isn't something that was at all agreed upon; it simply happened of its own accord, as if men working downtown all went and bought up all the tan pleated pants they could. In larger cities like New York and Chicago, people's status is defined by the winter coat they wear. Lots of gray and black wool and classic lines. Some years long coats are fashionable, but the actual color and fabric changes very little.  Even New Orleans, the most intentionally libertine place I've ever lived, had something like a dress code, though I'm unsure of that is the case now.  It's the same in suburban and rural areas, too. And regionally, clothes are just SLIGHTLY different from region to region... little things like the cut of a collar or the weight of the fabric.

Except for LA -- which I want to distinguish ontologically and existentially from the rest of California.

Some places are more bound by geography than others. Louisville, for example, is always defined by the river. It grew out of the river, organic and disparate like the river itself. Denver has the mountains. Other places are not limited by geography in quite the same way. Indianapolis, for example, can plan, build, and erase with only the limitations of budget and imagination to limit them. Indianapolis, for example, has some of the best urban bike lanes I've ever seen... primarily because they can just remake the sidewalk and the road without having to contend with narrow streets winding between historic architecture. They can just demolish and rebuild. Louisville has deep eddies of history to contend with... some of which it deals with very badly, especially if it has anything to do with the history of anything west of 9th Street.  But I digress.

LA is, in some ways, very much like Indianapolis in that it simply has to erase and rebuild. While there are a few shadows of something like history, the fact is that LA has so much culture, so much that has happened here, that the sheer amount of it has erased a common feel of what this town is like. LA can be anything for anybody at anytime. At any given moment, an endless multiverse of LAs exist simultaneously and within the same geographic boundaries. LA is a painting left out in the rain. All the colors melt and go muddy until there is hardly any of one distinct anything left.

This can make it difficult to contend with, especially if you're a history and story junkie like me. Unfair as it is, the LA that exists in my mind is one painted by John Fante, Bukowski, Nathanael West, and Van Halen.  This wasn't the LA I found, exactly. But then again, it was difficult to have what someone might reasonably call the  "LA Experience" when I was either enveloped in MFA Residency work or cloistered in my Culver City (still LA) motel room working on client work. It's not that there weren't social opportunities. There were. But between work needing to be done and the fact that, at 7 months sober, I still don't feel like I can walk into a bar just to say howdy and not ask for a beer and a shot, I found it easier to be a little anti-social.  Or at least, not walk into a bar while in a place -- geographically, ontologically, and existentially -- where all of my anxieties and fears that I used as excuses to drink would be in play and nipping at the back of my brain like a cattle dog.

And it's not that I think LA is devoid of stories. It's just hard to crack the surface without the usual social lubricant. And as much as I enjoyed being in the company of other word junkies, the fact is I don't much trust writers when it comes to embracing an authentic experience of anything. Writers, like alcoholics, are experts at gaming themselves and wrapping themselves in a reality to suit their needs... even if that reality is largely an antagonistic one.  And because LA is truly its own multiverse, created, revised, and deleted with impunity, I have a difficult time feeling anything close to comfortable here. I lumber too large and occupy the space in a bizarre way. I feel permanently awkward here in a way that I don't feel anywhere else.

And yes, I know its in my head. And yes, to a degree perception is reality. But I'm too much the stoic Ohio Valley Boy to ever really accept that all I have to do is blink and shake my head and somehow magically the sensation changes.  Some things just ARE because they are, whether we like them or not.

And geographic cures are bullshit.

I do wonder, though, if numerology isn't at least partially to blame. I wonder if LA would be a different place if it wasn't reduced in the common imagination to LA... and all the odd, shiny stuff that single syllable holds. I wonder if we thought of angels instead of movie stars if somehow, the multiverse would shift and the stories would come into focus.

I'm going to have to come back to find out, though.






04 June, 2018

It's all casual along the dirty, sacred river

Mick Parsons, writing, Louisville, violence
I spied the end of a sex transaction while walking to the coffee shop. As I rounded the corner from my street to the main artery, I saw a young man trying to simultaneously pull up and snap his jeans while walking nonchalantly. He did neither of them very well. The girl he was with was short, blond, and far less concerned about being seen than he was. Then again, her clothes were in place and walking seemed far less of an issue.
The young man noticed me and tried even harder to look like nothing was happening... at one point, even trying to put his arm around the girl, who, to her credit, could have cared less about the appearance of things. They continued to walk together, but it was hard to imagine them being a couple. He was very tall and dressed like an extra from a late-90's gang movie. She was very short by comparison.
And except for his failed attempt to look like she hadn't just serviced him near a busy street corner in between acts of the torrential downpour, I probably wouldn't have noticed were it not for the fact that, at a distance, she looked underage and it was a little early for the street walkers in my part of town to be out and about. 
I'm being unfair, I know. They COULD be in a relationship. But the fact is she was far more interested in her sucker than she was in him -- and in my experience, even a quick oral cop in the late morning between consenting adults will most likely include just a little post-glottal tenderness. 
This wasn't the blog I intended to write today. I had something else in mind, something having to do with this dog issue on my street. One of the houses on my street had a husky tied out without shelter all day yesterday -- a day with weather ranging from hot and sunny to torrential downpour. After trying unsuccessfully to find anyone home --or, at any rate, anyone who was willing to answer the door -- I called the city, which, with its usual bureaucratic ineffectiveness, did not come.  At points the husky was pulling on the VERY short tie out she was on and making that high pitched whine that only Huskies and German Shepards seem to make. 
Casual cruelty and abuse offend me more deeply maybe than intentional cruelty and abuse. At least when someone is intentionally evil, deliberately cruel and abusive, the direct action to correct it seems just. There is an intelligence -- albeit a disturbed one -- at work when cruelty is committed in a deliberate manner. I could even make the case that cruelty in the name of passion -- maybe not deliberate, but focused and full of evil purpose all the same -- is at least understandable, even though it is abhorrent. 
But casual cruelty is not deliberate. It's rooted in ignorance, and the educator in me still likes to think that ignorance can be educated and eradicated. And I know enough about this neighbor in particular to know that there is nothing deliberate in the aforementioned cruel behavior. Some people just don't see dogs -- big dogs especially -- as anything other than a soulless animal, something maybe pretty to look at, but in the end, not human and therefore not entitled to being treated with love and dignity.
At some point in the afternoon, some of the neighborhood kids checked on the Husky. Not long after, she disappeared -- and so I thought maybe either the city came and picked her up -- she would have found a home in no time -- or maybe the owner thought better of his or her cruelty.
The husky was back out early this morning. At an appropriate time I once again walked over to try and talk to someone at the house. Once again, no one was home - or no one answered.  I once again called the city. Sometime later the husky was gone again. And I hope to God that someone came and retrieved her.
There's no accounting for the humanity or lack thereof here along the dirty, sacred river -- or anywhere, really. One of the things I love about living in Louisville is that when you strip it to the bare bones and look at how it functions -- and in some cases, doesn't function -- this town is just that. It's a small town with some tall buildings and the growing pains of a mid-sized Midwestern City in the process of redefining itself. 
But when you look at the bare bones of a place like this, it's hard not to notice that while many of the things that make it a small town still exist, there's a malignancy growing there, too.  Live here long enough and you start to find odd connections between the seemingly disparate people you know because they either went to the same high school or grew up in the same part of town but never knew one another because they were bussed to different schools. Locals give directions based on non-existent landmarks.
But that casual cruelty -- which isn't absent from small towns, either -- grows on the bones and spreads with startling innocuousness. 

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25 May, 2018

Memorial Day: For all the Fallen Fathers (and Mothers), Real and Imagined

On leave in Florida. 
I am 45 years old and I'm still coming to terms with the impact my father's death had on my life.
Just when I think I've caught all the ripples and echoes created by the absence of gravity Dad instilled in my life, I end up finding just one more thing. One more ripple. One more echo. And it never stops.
The impact of his death on my life when I was 17 has been and is incalculable. It set into motion virtually all the circumstances that my life now is built upon, from my own fatherhood that has long defined the geography of my life to my writing which has long been the compass I've used to make my way through map I draw with every step I take and every line I write, to the deep anger that drove me towards self-destruction,  the weight of guilt and obligation that tore me away from self-destruction, and the imparted wisdom that eventually drew me back to the greatest love I could ever imagine. 
My father was a complicated man, though I don't think he wanted to be one. Then again, it's possible that men placed on pedestals always look complicated. Through the years of learning more about myself, I've been able to humanize him a little more... especially as I am now the age he was when I was small and  I was in and out of the hospital -- the age he was when he became my hero and the archetype by which I still (whether I mean to or not) judge all would-be heroes, real or imagined.
It also happens that my father was a veteran of two wars (Korea and Vietnam)  that America has
consistently overlooked. I would say that he part of the ignored generation of American Veterans -- but the truth is that our government has historically ignored those who risk life and limb in defense of the ideas embodied in our Constitution and Bill of Rights. Our government breaks bodies and spirits, but it does not buy what it breaks. And while my father was fortunate enough to come back physically intact and mentally steeled, it's impossible for me to say exactly what the impact of his military service was -- which started when he was 17 and continued until he was almost 40.
It's impossible for me to understand the impact it had on him because I have never served and because he died before he felt like he could share those stories with me. 
I feel the absence of those stories almost as acutely as I feel his.
It's also impossible for me to understand the loss felt by sons and daughters whose fathers -- and whose mothers --did not come home alive or in one piece. And although I've long held the opinion that war is a travesty perpetrated by cowards too far removed from the devastation to feel its impacts, as time goes on I find that I see it even in starker terms. War is a sin, and a tragedy with an impact so devastating that it's easier to make more war than it is to examine the impacts.

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20 April, 2018

Kintsukuroi: Or, Being Humpty Dumpty

The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. ~ Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

Mick Parsons Dirty Sacred River
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When I broke the bowl I was pissed. Maybe more pissed than the situation merited, but that probably isn't for me to decide.  

Keep in mind, I'm not one to lose my temper and I'm not inordinately attached to stuff... as a concept. Certain things among the stuff I have has intrinsic meaning, though. And while the bowl hasn't been mine long, it quickly gained the status of useful artifact.

The bowl, along with a sturdy little cup, was a gift from my wife. And if that wasn't enough, both were made by my friend Beth -- one of my oldest friends and one of the few remaining people from the ether of my undergraduate college years who I still talk to.

People trapped in an avoidance culture full of disposable everything dismiss the importance of artifacts. But I've long maintained the importance of certain things of the various stuff I've had over the years. At one point in my life, when all of my earthly possessions could fit in one smallish suitcase and one milk crate (for books... what else) I still had this red coffee mug from Bybee Pottery... a mug I still have and still use.

The glaze has a crack, but I can't let it go. And yes. That's my fidget spinner.

I don't know if the bowl can be repaired, but I hope it can. Amanda reminded me of Kintsukuroi, the Japanese art of repairing bowls and cups with silver or gold. 

In other words, as my wife succinctly pointed out:

If you can't hide it, paint it red.

At the core of her statement is an idea that runs counter to the avoidance culture we live in. We're not supposed to look like we've been through anything. Entire industries have grown that encourage us to hide everything from our age to our relative poverty (thanks to the usury perpetrated by credit card companies and the stupid amount of importance people put on their FICO Score).  Every truly human thing we experience, ranging from absolute happiness to the darkest of grief, is supposed to be tempered, homogenized, and run through a cultural meat grinder that either reduces it something just one person feels or -- maybe worse -- dilutes it into something that needs to be healed by the latest version of New Age hokum.

Living in the midst of an avoidance culture means every experience we have should be neither too happy, too hard, too sad, or too disastrous as to leave a mark. And when it does leave a mark, we should feel shame and hide them accordingly.

Well... to hell with all that.

The Hemingway quote I used is a pretty popular one. You see it in a lot of inspirational memes that are supposed to make people feel better about going through the meat grinder. But it's also cherry-picked... which is the curse of all great writing and proof that there is some truth buried in it that people want to overlook. Here's the rest of the quote:

But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.

The truth here, as I see it, is that we really have two options. We live and suffer breakage -- which means, at some point, we have to find a way to repair the broken spots -- or we die. Finding a way to fix the broken spots doesn't mean we need to cover it up to make other people feel better, though. On the contrary. It is the things that have broken us that we have worked to repair that make us beautiful. It is these things that make us human. And moreover, it is these things that bring out the divinity buried in every person. Our broken points bring us closer to oneness with God.

The beauty of artifacts and of people... especially the broken ones... is that they bear the mark of our having lived through the moment when the break happened.  It means we survived. 







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