Volume V: On Bravery

“It is possible that a starving African farmer has less sense of injustice than a middle-aged Western male who has never been fellated.”

 -Michael Foley

1.

I went to this birthday party at a bar. It was for a friend of a friend, and he’d hired a psychic for the evening. Everybody got a free reading.

The psychic is an attractive blonde. She’s sitting behind a small square table. I walk into the darkened room, shut the door behind me and sit down across from her in a folding chair.

She asks to hold my hand—that’s how she “gets the energy.” She tells me that I was “a gladiator in a past life.” Not only that, but it was my favorite life. I was a real star on the Roman circuit, apparently—a winner who had no small taste for the fan worship, fame and glory.

“People are still drawn to you in this life,” she says, raising her eyes to look at me.

“Are you drawn to me?” I ask.

I imagine her ducking under the table, taking out my Johnson…

Man. I’ve been watching too much porno.

2.

In the movie Fight Club, Tyler Durden asks the protagonist, “How much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight?”

I would like to take this question one step further by asking, “How much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a battle?”

I’m talking about medieval-style battle, where you stand in a field with a cleaving weapon, surrounded by thousands of other men with axes and swords whose goal is to cut you down. It must have been possible to know a lot more about yourself in this sort of no-holds-barred, kill-or-be-killed situation. At the very least, you could know whether or not you’re brave. Nobody wants to be thought a coward.

The most harrowing confrontation a modern man might have is the sending of a strongly-worded email. Sure, a fight might break out at a bar. You could find yourself fending off a would-be mugger or burglar. Those particularly eager to prove their courage can put themselves in harm’s way by joining the military. Then there are the modern gladiatorial events of football, hockey, MMA, and boxing. The average person, however, is no more eager to participate in contact sports than he is to ship off to Afghanistan. As Durden points out, “most people—normal people—will do just about anything to avoid a fight.”

This is a paradox in America, Home of the Brave, Land of the Violent. Going to war in Afghanistan is less dangerous than living in Chicago. We watch violent movies and sports, we play violent video games, and we gun each other down with sickening regularity. Our national military spending accounts for 40% of global arms expenditure. The United States has some 700 worldwide military bases in 148 countries. It has the world’s highest incarceration rate and an increasingly-militarized police force. Trickledown economics may be bunk, but trickledown violence is indisputable. The brutality of the Empire is writ small in the brutality of the Homeland.

3.

I am driving home from the birthday party. The blonde psychic gave me her number. I’m not sure yet whether I’ll call her. She must know, though, seeing as she’s a psychic.

Courage with women is one way to prove your bravery. When one man sees another man with a good-looking woman, he admires him, not unlike the way one admires a solider or an athlete.

I haven’t been in a fight since college, when my buddies sparked an altercation that spilled into the center of the street. One of them sized me up, came at me with fists raised. I danced around a little bit like I remembered the boxers in the movies doing. He lunged at me and I spun away, caught him by the arm and tried to rip him to the ground. While he was off-balance I swung a wild right hook that caught him square in the nose. The blood spurted down his yellow oxford onto the snow-covered ground. He stumbled away, holding his face, unable to fight on. The knuckles on my hand were busted, but I didn’t care. I felt good. Damn good. We cavorted home and drank the rest of the night.

An early model Ford Taurus has been tailgating me for the last several miles. It continues to follow me as I turn left into my apartment building. I creep over the speed bumps and the Taurus is still right on my ass. I swing it left a bit before turning right into my parking space. In the process, the Taurus tries to go around me on the right.

The son of a bitch. He won’t get away with this.

My car is at a 45-degree angle to his; the driver’s forward path is barred. I turn off the car, get out, stride over to the Taurus.

“Hey motherfucker,” I say. “What’s the deal? Are you in that much of a goddamned hurry? You’ve been riding my ass since the Beltline.”

There are two men in the front seat of the Taurus. They are foreigners—Middle Eastern by the looks of it. The driver does not make eye contact with me. Shit, the poor slob probably doesn’t know any better. In his home country there’s probably no concept of “tailgating”. But I’ve taken it this far. I might as well finish.

“This is where we live man,” I continue, changing tacks. “Just a little bit of courtesy, that’s all I’m asking for.”

The driver still does not make eye contact. The passenger addresses me on his behalf.

“You did not use the turn signal,” he says. “This is rude, not to show other drivers where you’re going.”

“Seriously? Turn signals in a parking lot? If you’d given me enough space to maneuver I wouldn’t have needed to signal.”

I’m ready to let it go. I walk back to the car. And then from the Taurus: “Fuck you, man.”

The fat passenger said it. I walk back over to the Taurus. I reach for the driver’s door. The wild-eyed, dark-skinned man locks it, starts to roll up the window. I push the window back down, feel it break the automatic mechanism.

“You’d better watch it,” I say. “This is a small town. Maybe I’ll see you around some time.” I let the force of the threat linger for a moment.

I imagine they must be thinking, “Dear God, Dear Allah, we’ve rankled one of those Americans you hear about on the news, the guys with all the guns. He’s probably armed right now. He’s going to shoot us dead right here in the parking lot. Sweet, merciful Allah, protect us from the wrath of the American.”

“Get the fuck out of here,” I say.

Three days later I see them in the parking lot of Market of Choice. I push my chest out, raise up to my full height, scowl sideways at them as I walk by. They don’t even notice me.

4.

The Meat Puppets are playing WOW Hall in Eugene. I park a few blocks away, guzzle a Coors Light tall boy, listen to a few tracks to get into the mood.

The venue was originally a church before it became the headquarters for the local chapter of the Woodmen of the World—hence WOW. Old black and white member photos adorn the lobby walls. Men holding axes stand before giant stumps. They look manly, dirty, and proud, completely unashamed of felling old growth trees. In those days, modern guilt had yet to set in.

It’s a little past nine. The opening band is a couple of tracks deep. I don’t know their name and I don’t care. Most people over 21 are using this time to kill beers in the basement lounge. I join them. Drunk people don’t want to hear new material. They want the hits, and they want them now.

I was introduced to the Meat Puppets’ music via Nirvana. I’m sure they were grateful for the break, but I wonder sometimes whether they resent the whole MTV Unplugged thing. Before then, they were a rock band’s rock band. Now, they’re a rock snob’s rock band. “Yeah, man, I was a big fan before all that MTV shit. I bet you only know the songs Nirvana covered.” But the crowd wants what it wants. “Play “Lake of Fire.” Play “Plateau.” Play “Oh Me.”  Play them because I am full of cheap beer and I want to feel culturally relevant.

Only one member of the original band—Curt Kirkwood—is still on tour. He’s the Meat Puppet you want, though, the lead singer/songwriter, the guy behind “Lake of Fire” and all the rest of them. Cobain invited him to play on state during Unplugged. It was he who wrote the lyrics, “Who needs action when you got words.” It’s awfully disappointing as a writer to find that what you’ve tried so hard to say over the course of pages—entire books—a songwriter has expressed in a single line.

I muscle up front towards the stage. Kirkwood is probably 10 feet from me. I can see the fine movements of his forearm muscles when he plays. His stomach fat jiggling underneath a frayed t-shirt is clearly visible. His long, curly hair is wrapped up in a loose pony tail. He looks like he just got up from a nap and walked out onstage. I bet he stinks. I get as close to the stage as possible, trying to smell his stink, the stink of a real rock and roller.

The guitar player is young. He knows all the chords, but he looks overwhelmed by the moment. How it must feel for Curt, a man who once played his songs with Cobain, to now play his songs with a kid who looks like a slimmed down version of Hurley from Lost. We mourn the loss of rock stars who were taken from us too young, yet there are so many more who go on passing ingloriously into old age just like the rest of us.

A mosh pit breaks out when the band plays “Lake of Fire”. Bodies crash into each other. A long-haired kid’s glasses fly from his face and disappear into the mass. A cell phone slides across the floor past my foot. I’m getting pushed off my spot by the surge of meat. I fight back, lowering a shoulder into whoever gets close. I think of the Woodmen of the World, sitting in this very hall, planning manly things. I don’t have an axe, but I have this body on loan. I spin through the crowd. An elbow connects with my sternum and the wind is knocked from me. A big dude plows into me, sends me careening through the fracas. I come back at him. We knock chests like two battling rams. I bite my tongue and taste blood. It slides down my throat, joins the Coors Light and PBR in my gut. The Meat Puppets, making the meat dance, making the meat sing, giving the meat what it wants. The flesh is willing. It is the spirit that is weak.

5.

I have a theory on the Tea Party and regressive Right Wing politics generally. The people who supports these politics often say, “I want my country back.” The country they “want back,” it seems, is one of small government and maximum individual liberty. According to this vision of limited government, everybody can more or less do what they want. It is a counterargument to the “socialism” that right-wingers detect in America today.

The problem, however, is that the America these people “want back” never existed in the first place. We have never been a purely libertarian nation. This has led to charges that “I want my country back” is a bigoted argument against the shifting demographics of America.

I disagree. I believe that “I want my country back” is an argument against the self-imposed limits it is now so abundantly clear we must adopt if we hope to escape the most dire effects of climate change. While the “country” that right-wingers “want back” may have never existed, it most certainly existed sometime before we became aware that we are self-destructing. The science is clear: if we do not make radical, collective, worldwide changes to our production and consumption patterns, we will come to inhabit a planet very different from the one that provided the preconditions for life as we know it. Scientists are now 95% certain that climate change is a real, man-made threat—as certain as they are that cigarettes kill.

But knowing that cigarettes kill and giving up smoking are two entirely different things. Anybody with an internet connection and a desire to know the facts can quickly see that we’re walking an extremely slippery slope here on Planet Earth. To keep the total amount of global warming since pre-industrial times to 2-degrees Celsius—the threshold that climate scientists widely agree is important for avoiding the worst effects of climate change—everything else we build from now on would need to be emissions- free. So says the results of a paper published in the journal Science…in 2010.

Scientists tend to avoid blunt, apocalyptic language when talking about climate change. Most of them do, anyway. Stephen Emmott, author of Ten Billion, ends his book this way: “We urgently need to do—and I mean actually do—something radical to avert a global catastrophe. But I don’t think we will. I think we’re fucked.”

Mark Twain commented that, “It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.” Wendell Phillips echoed this sentiment when he said, “Physical bravery is an animal instinct; moral bravery is much higher and truer courage.” Then there is Hemingway, who delineated the two types of courage thus: “Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality of those who seek to change a world which yields most painfully to change.”

The generations of children who inherit a planet that previous generations made much less hospitable will rightly call us myopic, selfish, greedy, and insane. They will wonder how it is that we carried on with business as usual when we knew it was leading to more severe storms, sea-level rise, ocean acidification, and mass extinction of plants and animals. They will ask how we could be such cowards.

6.

I meet the blonde psychic for drinks. On the drive to the restaurant I lay out the night’s proceedings in my mind. She will wear tight-fitting jeans, a top that leaves one shoulder bare, a tam-o-shanter fashion hat. She will order an apple martini and I a Stella Artois. She will laugh at my jokes and admire the way my hair has achieved the ideal admixture of neat and tousled. After a drink or two I’ll suggest that we move to another place. During the walk I’ll sneak an arm around her waist and after that, I’ll be in. It’s all about first contact.

All of this is bullshit, of course. Nothing is ever the way you think it’s going to be.

It’s raining outside, and by the time I get from the parking spot to the bar my hair is plastered against my head. She looks a little dumpier than I remember. The shadows of the room where she gave the reading hid the fact that she wears too much makeup. She’s already got a drink. Vodka cocktail, if I’m not mistaken. No hat, either.

“Oh hi!” she says, sounding a little tipsy already. She holds her arms out for a hug and as I lean in she gives me a Euro-style double-cheek-kiss-thing. So that’s how it’s going to be…

“How’s the psychic business?” I ask.

“It’s good,” she says. “Somebody from the birthday party you were at asked me to do readings at their office Christmas party.”

Pink cell phone case. Pink earrings. Pink nail polish. Probably a pink U of O sticker on her car. I’m assuming at this point she drives a VW bug. Dumb broads always seem to drive Volkswagens.

“Do you do children’s parties?” I ask. “You know, dress up like a clown and instead of making balloon animals you read palms.”

“Um, no,” she says.

She is not laughing at my jokes. She’s checking her phone.

When she excuses herself to go to the bathroom I have my chance. I can run away, through the rain, to my car, back to the enfolding solitude of my apartment.

Instead, I order her another drink and get myself a Jameson on the rocks. It’s a straight liquor type of night.

We end up back at her place. I’m inside of her. Her breath smells like booze and tic tacs. I didn’t even bother to get her shirt all the way off. It’s pushed up around her neck and her tits spill out the top of a pink bra.

When I’m about to finish I ask her, “Are you…do you…you know…can I…?

“Finish inside me!” she shouts from the depths of a pillow. I do as she commands and wait about 30 seconds before rolling off. She turns to her side and lets out a deep sigh.

“Ugh. I guess I’m going to have to get some Plan B in the morning.”

“Is that because you’re a psychic? Do you know you’re going to get pregnant?”

She doesn’t answer. God, she must hate me. She’s probably never hated anybody as much as she hates me right now. The acrimony forms a fog that settles in the valley between us on the sheets. But she doesn’t ask me to leave and this, in its own sad way, is so very tender. She falls asleep with one arm draped across my chest. I’m forgiven, in other words.

In the morning I agree to go get the Plan B.

“Wal-Mart sells it,” she says, holding out $50 cash.

“Nah, it’s OK. I’ve got this one. Actually, do you mind if we split it?”

“Just take the fucking money.”

“No, really, I’ve got it.”

I so don’t got it. What was I thinking? I guess that this was a way to be a man, to owe up to my actions, to be brave.

Add “guilt for not buying emergency contraception for one night stand” to the guilt list, which reads, in no particular order: Guilt when I drive. Guilt when I fly. Guilt when I read about wedding parties blown up by drones. Guilt for not giving money to the panhandling vet on Green Acres Road. Guilt for turning the thermostat too high. Guilt for not going vegan. Guilt for bodybuilding. Guilt for doing nothing to halt the rise of the corporatocracy. Guilt for not writing, guilt for writing when I should be living. Guilt for not sending money to a starving child in Africa. Guilt for not doing more to support the LBGT cause. Guilt for having it all and doing nothing with it…

“Guilty, guilty, guilty!” shouts a judge and I am taken away in handcuffs, left in a darkened cell where I’m relieved to sit and do nothing because at least know that my carbon footprint has been reduced.

It is early still. I make myself a cup of coffee and read news online. Unseasonably cold weather grips the land. A mere 7 degrees outside. The robins gather on snowy branches touched by sunlight and puff themselves up. They are brave. Much braver than me. But I suppose they don’t have a choice. That’s the problem, really: too many choices.

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Author: Brian Eckert

Wherever he lays his laptop, Brian J. Eckert calls home. Read more at www.brian-eckert.com.

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