Et in Arcadia Ego II

photo by tim timothy roessler

The strangest thing about this image is that it’s unposed. The skull lay exactly like that. I just took a knee to shoot it. Some other bones — a thigh, a shoulder blade, a small chain of vertebrae — were scattered around. I hiked off the official trails, so you’d have to work hard to find it or to arrange the scene.

A near-by cattle ranch leases the land. You can see cattle graze not far away from this site. Still, while I don’t know anything about animal husbandry, it seems like bad practice to have one of your herd die and be eaten by coyotes.

Outside of the frame, you can make up a lot of stories about that cow skull.

Inside the frame, I hope it tells only a few.

(c) Timothy Roessler

Tumbling down

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I used to love Tumblr the way an addict loves his opium pipe. In the beginning, and for many years, it would transport me to some Ali Baba cavern filled with a rolling collage of hypnotic images, infinitely looping gifs, secret references, and shared passions. 

Some Tumblrs were terrifying — scrolling howls made up of severed limbs, road kill and heavy metal music.

Some were as sweet as macaroons, dancing with gauzy images of Paris, pine forests and couples walking through sunsets.

Some were frankly and unashamedly pornographic. Back in the day, women would use their bodies and words to communicate their fantasies and desires — Internet Anaïs Nins. Some were incredibly specific and so, not interesting beyond a certain educational value: “Oh, so anime-eyed grannies with pigtails and Doc Martens are a thing. Hm.”

I’d often come home from the day job, put on music and watch the images float by, random juxtapositions that flattered or soothed or shocked me.

Tumblr was filled with freedom. Freedom to be Goth. To be a SJW or a full-on Nazi. Freedom to wallow in all the possible expressions of angst. Freedom to be sexy or naughty or vile. And you could opt in to a person’s curated or created vision, anonymously or out loud. Or just unfollow. Simple.

Eventually, the charm wore thin. Seeing so many images ripped out of context began to seem suspect and to encourage laziness. Reading a quote from a favorite author would remind me that I probably ought to be reading book by that writer instead of a random sentence. I began to learn, and then to tire of, my own taste.

Then ads began to clutter things up, as they do. 

Then more of my favorite blogs went dark.

And finally, Yahoo took over. Yahoo has a singular talent for failure, for taking something that sort of works and gradually draining whatever it was that made it worthwhile.

Verizon came in soon after. Confronted with a gaudy carnival of sex workers, perverts, weirdos and freaks, it reacted just as any soulless corporation would. It shut them down. Helped by Apple, who also wants to sanitize the internet with the bleach of family friendly entertainment, Verizon just shut it all down. “Female-presenting nipples” would be verboten, along with the porn. 

So I left. It would be ridiculous to make some sort of grand stand about it. But I’m getting tired of volunteering to participate in corporate, for-profit platforms with tidy little rules that reek of hypocrisy. 

Take Instagram, for example: those odd, nipple-less breasts and those censored derrieres that are dirtier than a regular, uncensored photo. It’s loathesome and juvenile in a sniggering nasty way, or worse, simply priggish. 

So rather than burrow away, putting up another one of my photos or random thoughts or reblogging yet another Bill Brandt image, I decided to quit.

And I feel nostalgic for something I never suspected I would: the Internet pre-Facebook, the free range, fourth dimensional realm where everyone seemed to find their kin without a censorious greedhead breathing down their backs.

Tow truck guy

Sometimes you don’t want to know what’s under the surface, but you find out anyway.
I left my headlights on the other night, so the battery died. After some swearing, I called a tow truck company to get a jump start.
In the parking lot, watching the Bud Light neon sign blink on and off, I realized how much you need a car. And how, when you don’t have one that works, you’re open to the elements, to asphalt deserts and car exhaust fumes and to long city blocks that seem made up only of stucco, streetlights and roaring traffic. How home seems far away.
Twenty minutes later, the driver roared up in a shiny white pickup. The guy had a total heavy metal vibe: sleeve tattoos, greasy skin, wispy goatee, and long black curly hair. In contrast to his truck, he was all in black with an over-sized Punisher t-shirt.
He zapped the battery of my car with some juice.
The car turned over. I paid him and threw in a tip out of sheer relief.
“So,” he asked, “How are the ladies in there?” He nodded to the bar.
“There? Fine.” On second thought I added, “Average.”
“Well, my girlfriend’s ugly,” he said. “She’s ugly on the outside. And she’s ugly on the inside, too. And she gets uglier every day.” He spat it out like a rotten orange.
“You want to know why I stay with her? It’s because she’s got kids. Three of them.”
“Three?”
“Yep. And I like ’em. I don’t trust her with ’em and don’t want to leave them alone with her.”
Before I could say anything, he tossed his long, lank hair, thanked me, and left.
And I wondered: Who was punishing whom back in that house of his?

One easy step to live longer

The guy who cuts my hair is old enough that his friends and acquaintances have started to die.

He won’t divulge his own age, but his friends are in their late 60s and early 70s. Not ancient, and younger than the life span you’d expect from an actuarial table.

One guy was a locally prominent entrepreneur. He made a small fortune and built his dream house, but was then diagnosed with lung cancer at the ripe old age of 63. He died six months later.

Another friend of his was a physician. She ran marathons, volunteered for good causes, and then built her dream house in a picturesque mountain town. Soon after moving in, the doctors found a malignant tumor the size of a tennis ball. She also died within a few months.

I have good friend from work, about the same age — 69 or so. He’s spent the last few years renovating a fine mid-century modern, laying out a garden, making his own dream home. And, yeah, he’s been given two years to live because of a misdiagnosed heart condition.

So, if you want a long life and happy retirement, the lesson is clear: Don’t build that fucking dream house.

Ever.

Boned

A guy asked me why Anthony Bourdain’s death hit me so hard. And I considered the question.

When a man who lived with such gusto kills himself, you wonder.

You wonder about how easily seduced you can be by appearances.

You wonder if your working philosophy of using sensuality to stave off the jimjams is well founded.

You examine your own circumstances and fall into the fatal mistake of making comparisons.

You are forced to consider the fact of suicide, the question that it poses. To answer that with a simple medical diagnosis is the easy way out. Sure, it’s “depression.” But often, it’s not. And, after a certain point, most of us know someone who committed suicide or others who made an attempt. 

That’s a lot material to feed a gnawing melancholy.

There are other, less personal, reasons. He was a fine writer, and we need as many of those as we can get. Take for example, this passage from Kitchen Confidential about eating his first oyster:

My little brother recoiled in horror.

But I, in the proudest moment of my young life, stood up smartly, grinning with defiance, and volunteered to be the first.

And in that unforgettably sweet moment in my personal history, that one moment still more alive for me than so many of the other “firsts” that followed—first pussy, first joint, first day in high school, first published book or any other thing—I attained glory. Monsieur Saint-Jour beckoned me over to the gunwale, where he leaned over, reached down until his head nearly disappeared underwater and emerged holding a single silt-encrusted oyster, huge and irregularly shaped, in his rough, clawlike fist. With a snubby, rust-covered oyster knife, he popped the thing open and handed it to me, everyone watching now, my little brother shrinking away from this glistening, vaguely sexual-looking object, still dripping and nearly alive. 

I took it in my hand, tilted the shell back into my mouth as instructed by the by now beaming Monsieur Saint-Jour and with one bite and a slurp, wolfed it down. It tasted of seawater . . . of brine and flesh . . . and, somehow . . . of the future.

Everything was different now. Everything.

He also made gourmandizing look elegant. Partly because he was lean and long himself. (Those hefty dudes on the Food Channel generally work as advertisements for sticking with a diet of oatmeal and watercress.) And for sure, what you didn’t see were Bourdain’s  early morning jiujitsu workouts.

But it wasn’t mere gourmandizing. It was a hunger for what this world offers us in vivid spices and salty landscapes. It was a readiness to plunge in, to embrace, and to celebrate. How often do you see that in mass media? Everyone else looked cramped and sour by comparison.

We live in a world full of constraints, an ever-narrowing range of possibility for pleasure from the skin, the tongue, and the mind. Our overlords want us to be simple automatons, content with cubicles and dull grey highway commutes that lead us to faux cheery offices.

Our relationship with pleasure is diseased. We either sink into full-bore hog wallows, with the bellies, diabetes and overdoses to show for it. Or we live austere lives, afloat on mineral water and kale. Or, most commonly, we swerve from one extreme to the other: binge, then scourge. We feel guilty. 

Bourdain celebrated life, and the life of the senses. This included film, literature, music, and art. He used his celebrity to publish and to produce other work he admired, and to honor the people he himself respected. He was a bright spot in a media stream that mostly looks like sewage.

That a man who seemed so enamored of the raw stuff of the earth could despair so deeply makes the impact of his suicide even worse. In interviews, he often mentioned that if he slowed down, his demons would attack him. It wasn’t, sadly, hyperbole. Maybe he made the fatal mistake of wandering off, looking at some improbably picturesque peaked roofs, at the ivy and grape vines and geraniums, and dark voices started whispering soft and low.

Or maybe it went down the way Norman Mailer said it did for Hemingway’s suicide. Mailer wrote that perhaps old Papa was playing with the edge, pushing on the shotgun trigger just to the point where it would fire — but no farther. Thus renewed from his brush with close death, he could go on with his day. Maybe Bourdain flirted in a similar way, hanging just so much, close to the edge, closer, closer, closer . . . 

And suddenly past it.

Soul lag

I read about this first in Robert Graves: if you travel too fast, you leave your soul behind. It will find you and catch up with you, but for a few days or so, you’ll wander around, bereft and feeling empty.

Later, William Gibson dubbed it soul lag, which is a term both efficient and sci fi as you’d expect from him, but not very euphonious.

However you name it, the phenomenon feels real, and seems confined to jet travel. Cars, trains or busses don’t leave you with that hollowed-out, glazed over state. And maybe that’s why so many places at the end of the runway seem slightly hallucinatory and dream-like as well: you have no fundamental experience of it, lacking, as you do, your soul.

The current brutalities of jet travel — the lines, the herding, the delays, the indignities, the unspoken but certain message that you’re nothing but chattel — all the nastiness of it masks the magic of getting on an airplane. I’ve travelled often enough for business or pleasure and still, every time, I get a rush of exhilaration — once I’m safely out of the clutches of the airport.

Any magic requires a sacrifice. That’s the old rule. So it makes sense that in exchange for obliterating time and space, for lifting the curtain on an entirely new city in the space of mere hours, that we lose something of ourselves.

If you consider it too long, it stops to make much sense. If your soul is physical, then yes, or, at least, tied to your body somehow. But aren’t souls supposedly metaphysical and immortal? Do they inhabit a third, undefined space? The soul seems oddly tenuous if you can lose it so easily.

Contemplating the details of soul lag, you start channeling your inner Medieval scholastic.

Still, we feel lost. Along with the excitement, we’re jet lagged, barren inside, a little overwhelmed. For a few hours or days, at least, we’re not ourselves and agog at the skyscrapers or the beaches, the avenues or the mountains.

We slip unknowing into dream time after being dropped from the clouds.

And we consider all this “normal” as we check our new surroundings for a good place to grab a coffee.