Things Midwesterners Know

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hilarious blue collar

I grew up in Indianapolis, where people work with their hands and know that doing anything else isn’t work. But I’ve spent most of my life in Seattle, where people work with their MacBook and turn the air conditoner on when it hits 74 degrees. Here are things I found out about after returning to the Midwest:

When drilling through a steel girder, you need more than just a hammer drill. You need WD-40, or the oil that drips off your butterburger, or at least something greasy on the girder. Otherwise, the bit will bite and the drill will leap like a wet leopard.

A magnetic screwdriver is useful for removing shards of metal from your friend’s eyeball.

To drive a forklift out of a hole it has fallen into, you must shift its weight onto the drive wheel. Try rocking it by using its fork to lift another forklift. Just don’t drive that one in the hole too.

Duct tape and paper towels make the best bandages.

When cutting hundreds of pieces of metal framing, use a sharp pair of cutters. Otherwise, it’s not like your arm will “get tired.” At some point, your hand will simply refuse to perform the task.

Making a building out of metal and drywall takes sweat and hard work. Also, aside from the primal satisfaction that comes from affecting the physical world, it’s just as silly as making a “financial derivative” out of numbers and bullshit. The guy wearing the tie points at his bank account to prove he did something truly valuable with his time. The guy with the tool belt can point at a wall.

Physical labor is just as arbitrary as anything some slick California-type ever did with a laptop to make money, but we all need to justify whatever it is we do all day.

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People With Guts Showing

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simpsons halloween

 

When I am in public, I am often amazed by people. There is so much variety in our process of interacting with the world. Consciousness shines in a rainbow with so many shades. When that lightbulb goes off in our heads, it blazes outward in prismatic colors and shapes that often look strange to me.

Some of us have no “inner dialogue.” For a chosen few, whatever they think they say.

She’s sitting at a lunchtable by herself, looking up at a TV that’s blaring news. “Oh a fatal shooting. Look at that. Good.”

Whatever she may have meant by that statement, the fact that she said it out loud fucking amazes me.

It’s a phenomenon that I can witness over and over without quite being able to believe it. Not only do some people not think twice before speaking, I’m pretty sure they don’t even notice that a thought became words.

What I can’t believe, is that it doesn’t bother some of us to spurt and drip words. We all have half-formed ideas, and it’s one thing to drool half-formed ideas. But to never, ever, wipe your chin?

How can a human being be built so differently than I am?

It’s like seeing a body turned inside out, blue veins glistening and pulsing, white eyes staring out from behind the meat. Yet it all functions just fine.

In fact, sometimes other people react warmly to those turned inside-out.

It does make for an easy way to relate:

“Hey, you got blue veins too!”

I think that what has freaked me out about this for most of my life, is that when all of somebody’s thought-juices are flowing on the outside, I can see the places in their minds that aren’t getting circulation.

There is no self-reflection.

Her “id” and “ego” are obviously well-formed. I can hear her sorting out what she wants to do with her afternoon: “I’m gonna kill that bastard.” But no superego? No checking in with the self? No thinking about what you’re thinking, or saying?

Of course, a lot of my day is spent thinking twice, or sixteen times. Maybe I’m just jealous.

A Life Powered by Want

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“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven..”
― John Milton, Paradise Lost

 

It has been said that people run towards a goal for only one of two reasons.

1) They want the gold medal they perceive at the end of the race

2) They’re being chased by a rabid dog

 

The human brain evolved as a tool to help us find food and shelter and resources. You gotta outrun the sabre-toothed tigers while dodging the golfball hailstones so you can grab the fruit off the tree. Yes, ancient life was like a video game only with real death.

That structure sculpted the form of human consciousness, and these fear/reward mind-structures are why we like playing Pac Man or poking endlessly at a screen of Angry Birds. Our brains are wired to go after points and chomp as much as we can while staying ahead of the ghosts.

Notice the difference between how you feel when you plan a trip or talk to an insurance agent for too long. “I’m not saying the sabre-tooth tigers are going to get you, it’s just that if they do…” Either re-directs the focus of your mind. It is just as good at “getting excited” about what you want, as it is about “getting afraid” of what may harm you.

We all know what it feels like to rub palms of anticipation, or to wring trembling hands of worry.

Either emotional state is natural, and we usually think that these feelings are determined by outside forces. Life offers real triumph and real defeat, doesn’t it?

Yet most of our time is not spent in the moment we reach a goal and find our destination, or fall on our asses. Most of our lives are experienced in the hours we journey towards those outcomes.

This brings the human being who notices their own emotional states and what causes them, to a fascinating choice:

Would you prefer to spend most of your waking hours being excited or afraid?

Yes, this is a choice. It’s just not one that people often talk about. Because it has nothing to do with the type of success that other people can see.

Instead, this choice determines whether or not you live in hell.

Making this particular choice doesn’t affect whether or not you’ll reach your goals. Just how you feel on the way there. Some billionaires wanted the freedom they perceived as only possible after grabbing a billion dollars. So they eagerly grabbed it. Others were afraid their fathers would be disappointed in a non-billionaire. So they feverishly grasped at money.

The free ones are the happy billionaires.

Choice can determine the color our lives will be painted, the shit-brown we smear ourselves in because of fear/anxiety/shame or the brilliant orange of fiery exhilaration. The very essence of our own personal inner experience of life, is up to us. Which is, itself, a lot of responsibility.

We must accept the possibility that our lives are up to us. Not the wins and losses. Not the outcomes. Those things are beyond anyone’s control. The emotional reality of life is up to us.

That possibility can be terrifying.

 

Seeing your life as a choice, getting that epiphany or intellectual realization or spiritual awakening or whatever your existential cup-of-tea may be – doesn’t change how your emotions are wired. And if you’re like just about anybody else, with choice comes the possibility of guilt.

Didn’t your parents teach you that if you choose wrong, whatever happens next is your fault?

Face up to the fact that you choose the flavor of your own life, and all sorts of questions fall right on your head.

Why didn’t you choose sooner? What if somebody had shown you? What if your parents had taught you that? What have you missed out on all these years?

A life powered by want is a more exciting choice, and choosing it is worth noticing that you had the option all along.

She just dropped trou and whipped it out

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I lived in Seattle for a couple of years, across the street from where 3-million dollar condos hovered over the water.

mad park

Because I have never felt myself to be a part of any specific group of people, cultures have always fascinated me. All strike me as foreign.

I wondered: What is normal in this upper-class Northwest American culture? Are my neighbors happy?

To a middle-class way of thinking, the assumption is “yes, of course THEY must be happy.” Just look at those tennis shoes. They’re as white as Greek houses.

Think about what it would be like to walk a mile in those brand-new shoes, knowing you didn’t have to walk at all. When you never have to work another day in your life, isn’t it an awesome feeling to wake up in the morning and know you can do whatever you want?

I am the type of person who will actually ask that sort of question.

If you try communicating with the leisure class, you might get a hazy smile as their head pivots slowly in your direction. Wait about six seconds after saying “hi,” and watch to see if their eyebrows can do the heavy-lifting to bring those eyelids half-open.

By the sparkling waters of Lake Washington, I did absorb some profound lessons on life. Many were erudite, full of the intricate and plodding whimsy of the heavily medicated. Often these observations were offered just after benzodiazepine-naptime and before oxycontin-naptime.

It might be awesome to dream of waking up rich one day. But a lot of actual rich people don’t spend much time awake.

Like any make-believe group of human beings we can label, it turns out that “rich people” are still human, and those folks have their own problems going on.

Recently, I’ve been waking up in a Midwest manufacturing town. This is a blue-collar place that has been turning into a low-income or no-income place. The modern problem faced by American manufacturing towns probably isn’t about demand for US-made goods, or even Mexicans. The problem is that less and less manufacturing is done by human beings. Not only did the jobs move away – they don’t exist anymore.

When people stopped making six-cylinder engines for Chryslers down the street, it was robots that started making them somewhere else.

What was once a bustling factory with thousands of callous-hardened hands cranking out engines, is now a sort of post-apocalyptic concrete wasteland surrounded by taverns.

former Chrysler plant

Us low-income folks have our own problems to deal with. There are cultural issues that are often seen along with fundamental shifts in an economy. Low-income does not mean “criminal,” yet the two are often seen holding hands.

While running a rooming house in a ghetto, I thought about this a lot.

One day, some local gunshots still echoing in my mind, I walked over to a neighbor’s house. I was thinking along the lines of an informal sort of “Neighborhood Watch” thing.

I believe that people are what make up a neighborhood, and having little-income does not necessitate theft and violence. They correlate, not causate.

As I got to my neighbor’s steps, a lady I’d seen walking up the sidewalk made a beeline for the yard.

When she got onto the grass, she said “Hi” to me and pulled down her pants.

In the time that it took me to process what she might be doing, I caught a glimpse of something not quite like the end of an elephant’s trunk. She urinated on the lawn.

My neighbor came out on the porch and yelled a friendly “Hello” to both of us. Her friend pulled up her pants and climbed the porch.

 

Hmm.

How does this culture work?

I wondered: What is “normal” for my new socioeconomic class, the poverty-class?

It occurred to me that this was the second set of floppy labia I’d seen that week. Just a couple of days before, a lady strolled past my porch in a heroin haze, having forgotten to fasten the front of her slacks.

That would never have happened by the lake in Seattle. Those ladies might nod off with a doctor’s prescription, but they kept their pants zipped.

Some fundamental agreements, such as “we won’t pee by the sidewalk,” had not been reached by this culture. And I didn’t like that. I must have picked up some “American cultural norms” myself.

What about stealing? What about violence?

Were my neighbors happy?

 

Kill the Honky (a short true story)

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This is what happened to me one day when I was very young:

The flesh of my face is smooth and it feels every tip of soft hairs dancing across it. I tuck my chin to my chest, and the familiar fur of a small stuffed animal cushions and yields there. This is how I like to hold him, and his spongy head is okay with that. His fur is always touching me. He never moves and he is always where I want him.

I am pulled toward the earth in its most comfortable embrace. The slats of the swing are wide and firm under me. I lay on my side and hover. I can look through and see the floor of the porch below me. The world floats underneath and sways back and forth.

I fall asleep just as I do in my bed, with the small fabric animal pinned to my upper chest. The world slips and there is peace. There comes a darkness I do not see after my eyes have drifted closed.

The lack-of-me continues for some short forever. There is quiet nothing.

PAIN

Something smashes into my face. I feel my hands shoot up to catch it.

My belly goes tight from a blow and screams. My hands whip down in reflex.

Bleary light as my eyes try to… my face turns into pain again before I see. My eyes grip shut and my arms try to wrap my head.

My ears open wide and the whole of the outside world is in them:

“Kill the honky!”

I try to open my eyes. To see a honky. Pain smashes my face and my hands try to catch it again.

The world rocks and turns as more fireworks burst against my side. I tumble down and slam. I hear the wood thud as the porch catches me.

The world inside is pain.

The world outside is only this: “Kill the honky!”

Then, somewhere out there, I hear metal jingle and scrape.

Something cuts a searing red line across my leg. It burns.

The red line cuts across my ribs. I open my eyes.

They are over me, left and right and all around me. One has a chain.

“Kill the honky!”

A continent of a shoe stretches across my vision and my eyes squeeze shut and I clutch my everything.

My hands choose to protect my eyes over my body and they wrap my face. My knees try to find my forehead. What I am becomes smaller, tighter. Pain from my back joins my side and my belly and my leg and it all sings together with my head and hands.

Bright sharp perfect lines cut my legs. My side. My back.

“Kill the honky! Kill the honky!”

Everything is pain that pulses. A swell, retreat.

Then, somewhere, a sound.

A worse sound.

It is an animal howl.

The howl rises.

The howl of the animal is cold and still rising and something in my ears begins to rattle with it. It is the most terrifying sound I have ever heard.

I open my eyes.

It is my mother.

My eyes are pulled to her open mouth. Her lips wobble as a force cuts through her and out. Her head quivers with it. Her body shakes as the force pushes through her.

The boys all look because there is no way not to. The sound cuts through us all. They are transfixed. Fists uncurl.

My mother’s arms shoot straight up. Both hands clutch a broom held high above her head. It is a battle axe. She swings it down. The boys jump left and right. The chain slaps the wood floor.

The broomhandle cuts the air. Sneakers whip white lines. Flat rubber soles fling over the brick porch and disappear.

It is quiet.

A small fabric animal lays on the wood with its arms spread wide.
Everything is tight and closed in me.

They only seemed to wonder “who” to hate, not why

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three or four

I want to change the world.

When I was young, I saw that the human race had some problems.

I went to school in the early 1980s. Our teacher told us to crouch underneath our desks and lace our fingers behind our necks. This would protect us in case Russia dropped nuclear bombs on Indianapolis.

It seemed to me that mankind had some serious issues to work out.

I grew up in a low-income neighborhood. Down the street in a friend’s house, I once saw an expensive toy. It was a playhouse-kitchen a little taller than a doghouse. Inside the hollow walls that went “bonk” was a plastic stove with little toy hotdogs that weighed nothing.

In the real living room, beside the plastic playhouse, was a large round hole punched through the wall. It was the size of a hat. Dark clumps of hair and dried blood hung from the ridge of crumbled plaster.

People in my neighborhood seemed to be having problems with violence and hatred.

The house I grew up in had its own problems.

It seemed to me that a lot of people behaved violently in the world. They all justified their behavior with one belief or another. I wondered “why.”

When I say that I wondered “why” people behave and think as they do, I am not referring to a sort of wandering curiosity.

This “WHY?” was a 20-ton drillbit in my head, grinding towards the earth’s core. It was a penetrating need to know, motivated by physical pain.

It seemed like most people took violence and hate for granted.

They only seemed to wonder “who” to hate, not why.

I thought people were wrong.

To me, war and violence and racism did not seem like necessities.

From the time I was very little, I could see that the problems people had were created because they were thinking about things the wrong way.

I wanted to make certain I did not make the same error.

That error was deadly. But I didn’t know exactly what it was.

I wanted to know how people were learning to hate and why it was so common.

People thought they had “a good reason” to hate a country or a religion or some group of people, but the groups and the reasons were all different.

We all shared the same world, so the problem had to be in how we were perceiving it and what we believed about it.

So I paid attention to how people think about the world.

I wanted to learn what mankind’s perception was made out of, so that I could understand how human beings interact with reality. I wanted to learn how people build a scale model of the world in their minds and call it “reality.”

If I could understand how people built that reality inside their head, I could understand why that world was often so dark or different from the one outside.

I could learn why the world in some people’s heads had no room for entire races of human beings.

Reading hundreds of books helped me to learn about how people think. Over decades I started to notice my own processes, and eventually saw how similar we all are.

Talking with tens of thousands of people taught me a lot.

Being beaten with chains taught me a lot more. I will post about that next.

Assembly Line

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clockwork_by_zy0rg-d4yyjny

I am an assembly-line worker. We assemble chicken pot pies.

I am not a pie-maker. I am a small part of a large process. I do not pour chicken and green peas into the stainless steel vortex so they may churn round and round. People far to my left do that.

I do not stamp the pale flap of dough on top. People far to my left do that. Whap. Whap. Whap down the line.

People against my left elbow push the crust into rustic shapes like humans make. One finger of the right hand pushes dough against two fingers of the left hand. Pokepokepokepokepoke. I have heard stories that the first joint begins to hurt much sooner than you’d think. Pokepokepoke.

I do not bake the pies. People to my right do that.

I load six pies onto one tray and twelve trays onto one rack and push infinite racks until a horn blows. I am always in motion. I do not stop or allow one drip of sweat to touch a single pie as I push the racks.

I am a single cog in a clean machine.

How to be Bitten by Pitbulls

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pitbull 2

Yesterday I threw thousands of chicken pot pies and was bitten by pitbulls.

If you are walking on the sidewalk past the Stop-N-Go and you see two adult pitbulls running full-speed directly at you, do not try to run. Dogs are faster than you are. By the time you’ve turned around and begun to pick up speed, their momentum will allow them to clear the distance to your back.

You do not want pitbulls on your back. Do not turn away from them.

Some people say not to make eye contact.

You may find it hard not to look directly at dogs as they leap through the air toward you.

If at all possible, do not allow yourself a negative emotional reaction. You cannot be certain of their animal intent, but their behavior can be affected one way or the other by your emotional state. By expecting something bad you may create it. Try this:

Speak to yourself in a jubilant tone. “Hey look, dogs!”

Attempt to vocalize, first to yourself, just how excited these playful dogs must be. They are running so fast!

And now, they are jumping so high!

If your hands are in your pockets, this would be a good time to take them out.

Do not, however, extend your hands or fingers in a “warding off” gesture. The bones of your elbows are much stronger than the small bones of your hands.

Many dogs who are trained to attack people, are trained to bite the steel-wrapped forearm of the trainer.

If your forearm is not wrapped in steel, allow the dog access to your elbow by holding your least-favorite arm out, but hold your hand up and out of the way.

Assume that the dogs would like to play. Vocalize this.

What playful dogs bit the elbows of my coat as they leapt so high in the air!

After a few nips, they took off running again and passed me. Maybe following my trail back to the pot-pie factory.

When a House is Not a Home (poem)

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What I see are the lurid, oversaturated colors of grindhouse film. Reds are swollen and dripping mundane rage. Just a Tuesday full of screaming.

Dark minds drone like blue-black sleet behind doors. Angled criminal thoughts slice toward pavement. They move fast and make lines. They appear static because they are constant.

Mentally ill, or
greedy and cunning, or
hurting and hurtful,
are undifferentiated hard rain under a roof.

We have memories of what broke us. Yes, stored right there.

Every doorway and every stacked brick hides a small thing that doesn’t fit in the dark place where it is.

Purple pains lurk in arcane spaces. Frozen moments lean against walls, bent and sunken at weird angles the eye cannot long endure.

Money Thought Experiment

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Identical twins are born in New York City. They share interests in medicine and they both grow up.

One develops a patentable way to give monkeys erections. Each night, he drives a platinum Bentley home to his penthouse, when his golden limousine doesn’t pick him up from work. Lots of money “belongs” to him.

The other twin develops a non-patentable way to cure diabetes, and is pushed out of his job and sued for endangering a $176-billion medical industry. His socks get wet as puddles find the holes worn through the soles of his shoes. He “owns” a pair of Converse All-Stars and that’s it.

By some strange coincidence, both twins are abducted the same night. They are stripped of Driver’s Licenses that a bank would use for identification, and fingerprints that a government would use as proof of identity. Left naked in alleys, both wake up without credit cards. With amnesia.

Here is the “thinking” part –

One of the men will be picked up by police and brought to a platinum penthouse full of what he owns.

The other man will be picked up by police and dropped off in the alley again.

 

While these men sit naked and alone in alleyways, society is left with two holes. One on top and one on bottom.

Ownership(?) and identity(?) would fill these holes. Which man goes where and why?