Questions Pt. 1 (or, How Bill Murray Ruined My Life).

 

I may have ruined my life and it’s Bill Murray’s fault.

I know it’s fashionable to blame Donald Trump for everything these days- and that trend will undoubtedly continue to grow,-but, to be blunt, I don’t worry about Trump.

I mean I certainly understand that I’m going to suffer some terrible repercussions from his election, but at this point, it’s water under the bridge. I did my best to keep him from being elected, but the stupid, greedy, sleazy, immoral and apathetic people won and now we can all suffer the consequences. So be it.

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Which doesn’t mean that I’m giving up on life. I’m certainly not going to dress in sack cloth and ashes and bemoan my life or  the sleaziness of those who elected Trump and his posse of shit brained fools. That’d be a waste of my precious life, and besides, karma is going to go pitbull soon enough.

No, it turns out that even after Trump was elected, the sun came up and the wind blew through the trees. I woke up breathing pretty much like any other day and was forced to decide what I would do with that day. and by extension, what I would do with the remainder of my life.

This is obviously a decision each of us makes every day- either consciously or by default. And just because a crook with a limited IQ  is running the country, doesn’t mean that we have to pack it all in.  It’s not game set and match; it’s just the start of the war.

So what is next?

That is again, obviously, dependent upon who you are and what you believe. If you believe in God, arguably it doesn’t matter which path you take, because he’s got your back no matter where you go. As God was alleged to have said in the Book of Genesis- as rewritten by King James, “And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of.”

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Which, if you are a person of faith,  is pretty damn sweet.  However (long dramatic pause)…. not all of us can rustle up that kind of blind faith no matter how hard we try, no matter how much we would like to be comforted by by said alleged god.

 

Which pretty much leaves me and ye of little faith standing on the side of the road, looking far into the distant and hazy horizon thinking, “well, what next?”

Or, as Jack Kerouac said, in cribbing the Lord:  “Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car at night?”

 

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Which brings us, in not quite linear fashion, to the parable of the grasshopper, or cricket, and the ant.

THE ANT AND THE CRICKET

During the wintertime, an ant was living off the grain that he had stored up for himself during the summer. The cricket came to the ant and asked him to share some of his grain. The ant said to the cricket, ‘And what were you doing all summer long, since you weren’t gathering grain to eat?’ The cricket replied, ‘Because I was busy singing I didn’t have time for the harvest.’ The ant laughed at the cricket’s reply, and hid his heaps of grain deeper in the ground. ‘Since you sang like a fool in the summer,’ said the ant, ‘you better be prepared to dance the winter away!’

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This was, of course, a favorite parable of the nuns who beat me and every CEO who ever wanted to harness my energy, at minimal pay, so that he might  further enrich his own personal coffers. The ant represents all the good boys and girls.

The cricket, of course represents all those artists and bad boys and general near do wells that so many admire but never emulate in life. Crickets go through life starving and scraping by so that you might know life vicariously; so that you might, at least, enjoy life now – to some minor degree-instead of waiting till you’re nearly dead.

Most of us struggle with this dichotomy. I myself spent a large part of my being a good ant. I worked for a large insurance company-  and was fantastically underpaid by said  wealthy company for a long time.

I also worked for myself. And even though I was calling the shots, I worked- for a very long time- as an even more industrious ant. I worked my ass off and rendered unto Caesar and tried to be fair unto everyone; until it became very clear that the whole ant thing was a very large con game.

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In writing of man’s need for certainty and conformity Maria Konnikova in her work  The Confidence Game: What Con Artists Reveal About the Psychology of Trust and Why Even the Most Rational of Us Are Susceptible to Deception, writes that:

 Human beings don’t like to exist in a state of uncertainty or ambiguity. When something doesn’t make sense, we want to supply the missing link. When we don’t understand what or why or how something happened, we want to find the explanation..

Which is why man- as a whole, is so gullible. Man and women will believe damn near anything- no matter how ridiculous the explanation, so long as the explanation serves to calm their anxious soul, serves to smooth their furrowed brow.

Oh my, we’ve stumbled into Donald Trump Territory again haven’t we?

But then it’s always been a con game. Sort of like the plantation owners reading verses to the slaves so as to justify their enslavement. “Colossians 3:22: Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.”

 

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Sort of like when the banksters bankrupted America in 2008 and the government bailed them out and left the vast majority of us hanging…..

All of which is actually beside the point.

Because if the question is, should one check out of society and chose to live a simple life, rather than live as a rat on a treadmill counting the days till his or her first heart attack, then the answer is simple.

We should all check out and do whatever in the hell makes us happy; and fuck our governmental and corporate masters.

But then life is never simple is it?  Life is never just  about us is it?

We want to believe we are the star of the show, that we are a rugged individualists. We buy wholesale into the saw that America is the land of the individual.

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Which is why, “the American criminal justice system holds more than 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 942 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,283 local jails, and 79 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, and prisons in the U.S. territories,” because we are the freest people in the entire solar system.

No. We are a nation of conformists and we hate people who go their own way.

The government is not an expression of our highest ideals, but an institution we have created to generate the illusion of safety.  We conform because there is allegedly safety in conformity, and profit.

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I trust that you appreciate that the above tale of the cricket and the ant is from Aesop’s Fables . And do you know what I learned this day from my research? Aesop was a slave. “a slave and storyteller believed to have lived in ancient Greece between 620 and 564 BCE.”

Of course, there have always been those who decide to go their own way- to buck the system. Some even gain  freedom through cunning, wit or sheer determination. Aesops was such a man.

Aesops served as a slave under two masters, Xanthus and Iadmon, “the later gave him his freedom as a reward for his wit and intelligence. As a freedman he supposedly became involved in public affairs and traveled a lot—telling his fables along the way. King Croesus of Lydia was so impressed with Aesop that he offered him residency and a job at his court.”

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In fact, there are scholars who maintain that the fables served as both morality tales and as a means of  subversive, hidden speech, a means of speaking truth to the power during times of political repression.

Of course, playing both ends against the middle can always be a tricky thing- as evidenced by the fact that Aesop was executed, apparently, as an act of appeasement to the gods or some offended government….

So what does one do? Run, stay? Sometimes it’s easy because we don’t have a choice. Sometimes the world just commands, sometimes our souls demand.

Melville famously wrote in Moby Dick.

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

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Is it even possible to say that you have lived until you have obeyed the urge to flee? Those who have quietly taken to ship comprise a small but enlightened society.

One such kindred spirit was W. Somerset Maugham, who in 1944 published, The Razor’s Edge– which was twice made into a movie. The lead in the second movie, filmed in 1984, was, of course, played by Bill Murray in a rare early dramatic role.

The Razor’s Edge tells the story of Larry Darrell, an American pilot traumatized by his experiences in World War I.  After the war, Darrell travels the world in search of some transcendent meaning in life. …

The book, it is said, owes much to Maugham’s Asian walkabouts.  His travels allegedly
included visits to Shri Ramana Maharishi’s ashram in 1938. Maugham, some say,
foresaw the West’s fascination for Eastern culture—  two decades  before others.                                                                                                                                                                                      The novel’s epigraph reads, “The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the
wise say the path to salvation is hard.”   This epigraph is actually an approximation. The
actual quote, from the Upanishads, is this: “Arise, awake, and learn by approaching the
exalted ones, for that path is sharp as a razor’s edge, impassable, and hard to go by,  say
the wise.

This thought is both a release.

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As Americans we all too often believe that we’re entitled to whatever we want when we

want.  We’re then shocked and angered when things turn against us.  When, however,

someone is kind enough to clue us in up front, to tell us that life and freedom- whatever

that is- is a motherfucker, then we we’re put on notice to adjust our expectations . We

know to put on our game face,  to bring our A game.

***

I have known many crickets in my life. Some I have known personally, and others I have met through their stories and other works of art.

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Many of the crickets I have known are well known, the usual suspects. The Beats, the Transcendentalists, Thoreau, the rock stars of my youth prior to rock and roll being co-opted by Madison Ave and tied to every roll of toilet paper sold in America….

There was also Joseph Campbell.  The man who after reading tales of hero quests in countless cultures throughout time, encapsulated those tales in a common template which serve as the basis for nearly every tale of bravery and conquest ever written by man, or filmed by Hollywood.

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I love Campbell’s explanation of the hero-quest in which the hero leaves the safety of his society- normally after being ostracized or failing to conform with his society.

The hero then goes out into the world, engaging in battles and trials,  through which he gains wisdom. Ultimately, she or he returns home to his society bearing hard earned gifts and wisdom which benefit the society.

To Campbell, the cricket is a hero, not a slacker.  Maugham agrees as well: “You see, money to you means freedom; to me it means bondage,” Larry Darrell explains.

Of all the crickets I have ever met- and for whatever reason- none have suckered me as badly as Bill Murray’s portrayal of Larry Darrell in The Razor’s Edge.  I have seen both movies and read the novel. For whatever reason, the 1984 movie and Murray’s performance live in my head.

Because of this movie’s message, I’ve traveled many places,  had many adventures and even gained some wisdom.

But my life calendar now reads August, or maybe even September, and I find myself haunted by a question: should I go back, can I go back?

Is it too late-after spurning all appearances for the last twenty years or so, of a so called normal life; is it possible to go back and hide heaps of grain deeper in the ground? In other words, would it behoove me to act responsible, do everything within my power to try and make a buck and put away some cash, or is it just too damn late for such buyers’ regret? 

Because here’s the problem. Early on in your life you’re going to make the choice to be an ant or a cricket- either consciously or by default; either through inertia and apathy.  What no one will tell you though is that there comes a point in time- far sooner than you will appreciate- when you can no longer go back.

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And so I have gone, for years, for decades, happy to be a cricket. And winter now approaches.

Larry Darrell: “It’s easy to be a holy man on top of a mountain.”

Which is true enough.  It’s also a very tough gig to be a holy man in America, in Milford Ohio, in 2017.

Maugham’s hero also says that, “I found out there’s another debt to pay – for the privilege of being alive.”

I’ve been chewing on that for a long time now. Do we owe for our birth? Do we owe to others? To whom and what do we owe? Specifically, in my case- what do I owe to my sons, especially my schizophrenic sons who, at times, are not capable of caring for themselves ? Do I care for them for the rest of my life, forsaking some, if not all of my dreams in the process?

Do I work every minute for the rest of my life to help provide for them- or do I still owe myself a life? Is there a balance, and if so where is the line and who gets to draw it? Me, them, the church, the government?

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Maugham: “Nothing in the world is permanent, and we’re foolish when we ask anything to last, but surely we’re still more foolish not to take delight in it while we have it. If change is of the essence of existence one would have thought it only sensible to make it the premise of our philosophy.”

In short, Maugham is telling that life is short and that the only truth in life is change and we should live our life according to these truths.

Which, at the end of the day doesn’t really answer the question so much as it restates the question.  Which is really too bad- because I very much need the answer. Because if it isn’t too late, it’s getting close to too late for me.

So, if Maugham is ultimately kind enough to raise these large lurking existential questions, while refusing to answer them- where do we go for  an answer to this question?

I think I do know the answer to this question, The answer being is you go back to the wells of your youth.  You got here because, in the past, you found some truth which allowed you to make it this far. The answer, the location of this assistance, of these truths, is different for everyone, but the answers remain there none the less.

In my case, the answers have always been found on the road.

 

I also know, there are also wise men and women out  along the road.

In the end, I can only do what I’ve always done, because I don’t know how to do anything else.  I’ll go in search of wisdom, I’ll take the road and travel until I have the answers I need.

Again, Maugham; “Almost all the people who’ve had the most effect on me I seem to have met by chance, yet looking back it seems as though I couldn’t but have met them.”

So I go. I go to speak to the road, to speak with cranes and eagles and geese and deer and wise men and wise women and holy men and holy women and we shall see. Most of all I’m going because I can-  I owe myself that.

“I don’t think I shall ever find peace till I make up my mind about things,’ he said gravely.  He hesitated. ‘It’s very difficult to put into words. The moment you try you feel embarrassed. You say to yourself: “Who am I that I should bother myself about this, that, and the other? Perhaps it’s only because I’m a conceited prig. Wouldn’t it be better to follow the beaten track and let what’s coming to you come?” And then you think of a fellow who an hour before was full of life and fun, and he’s lying dead; it’s all so cruel and meaningless.  It’s hard not to ask yourself what life is all about and whether there’s any sense to it or whether it’s all a tragic blunder of blind fate.” TRE.
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And so I go and I’m not coming back until I have answers. Maybe not the answer, but
answers that will, at least, let me sleep at night. I’ll see you then.
Maybe I’m a fool, maybe not.
I’ll just close the first half of this essay by noting that it’s interesting to note that after
filming the Razor’s Edge, and flying home from Nepal, to make Ghost Busters; which was
Murray’s price- his trade off- for being able to make TRE- he quit acting for four years
and moved his family to Paris.
He then studied philosophy at the Sorbonne.
Maybe in the end, the only true suckers are those who never take the time to seriously
ask themselves what this life is about. Maybe those are the people who need to comfort
themselves with self serving parables.
Maybe I’m insane. Time will tell. More later.

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