Friday, May 27, 2016

THE TEMPLE REVISITED


When I arrive, my friend Jim Bowsher is, I can tell, busy, focused, into something big.  We’ve been invited to a friend’s house for dinner, but when I talked to him on the phone, he asked me to meet him at his house a couple of hours before because he wanted to show me something he was doing out in the yard.
It’s well into Ohio November but it has been unseasonably warm. Now, however, in the mid-afternoon of a lead-grey day, the weather’s changing. Last night and early this morning it rained, and now there’s a wind up out of the north. It’s stirring up the dry autumn leaves on the ground and things are growing chilly all of the sudden as I get out of the car, underdressed, in shirtsleeves and a light canvas vest, in front of Jim’s now famous house in Wapakoneta, our mutual home town.
Stones, boulders, masonry, ironwork and other symbolic 
remnants of Ohio's human and natural history.
I make my way past what looks like the remnants of an archeological dig in his little dooryard, and go up the steps to rap on his storm door. No answer. So I knock again, a little harder. Still nothing. So I go around back figuring he’s probably out in his incredible backyard doing whatever he does back there, working magic with rocks and stones and boulders, and masonry, and ironwork, and a gazillion other highly symbolic segments, chunks, pieces and slivers of Ohio history (both natural and human) spanning a period ranging roughly from the Ice Age to the 1960s or so.
I know the way. I was here a year before and wrote about the fantastic world of Jim Bowsher in a series of articles I published here in The Southern Yankee

But this time it’s different. I feel right at home, as if I belonged here, partly because of the friendship that Jim and I have forged practically “overnight”, but also, I think, because that’s the climate here, the spirit in which Jim created this extraordinary, surreal, almost insane homage to tolerance, a burgeoning rock garden that has now expanded obsessively to take up the entire heart of the block. Which is another crazy thing about Jim, how he manages to have his ever-persistent way, to get people to do things without resentment, to join him, in fact, in ventures that, if you or I were to try to present them, we’d at least get the door slammed in our faces and maybe even the dogs sicked on us, to say nothing of angry city fathers burning effigies and maybe even crosses in our yards.  
What's not stone is wrought iron culled from every historic
 demolition possible.
But yes, a climate of universal tolerance and peace and brotherhood, which he created for anyone with an open heart and mind who comes to call, but more than anything else, as a place where usually wayward kids feel they belong. A place where they know somebody cares, even if Jim can sometimes be a curmudgeon or even a bit of a pill, but always for their own good.
Like the kid who went to a job interview Jim had gotten him at a hamburger chain store on the edge of town and came back to Jim’s place later complaining that he hadn’t gotten the job. In fact, they hadn’t even seemed to want to talk to him. Jim looked up from the book he was reading at the kid and said, “Well, were you wearing that t-shirt?”
The kid looked down at his t-shirt and back up at Jim and said, “Yeah, what’s wrong with it?”
“It says ‘Eat Shit’ on it,” said Jim without losing his cool. And when there was no reaction, he said, “What kind of an idiot goes to an interview for a job in a restaurant wearing a t-shirt that says ‘Eat Shit’ on it?”
“I like this shirt,” says the kid, looking hurt. “My dad gave me this shirt. He thought I looked okay.”
“Okay, couple of things,” Jim tells him. “First, that shirt’s inappropriate...for interviews, for school, for just about whatever. Second, I know your dad. If you want to know anything at all about fishing or hunting or tromping around out in the wild, he’s your man. Ask him for advice on those subjects anytime. But he’s been in prison twice, so no advice on life. In fact, you tell him that. Tell him Jim Bowsher says it’s okay to ask him about hunting and fishing but no life advice.”
“You want me to tell him you said that?” the kid asks dubiously.
“Yes, you tell him Jim says no more life advice because he’s not qualified, then tell me what he says.”
Next day the kid comes back and Jim says, “Did you tell your dad what I said?”
“Yep.”
“And what did he say?”
“He said you were right.”
You don’t think about kids having these kinds of issues in the mostly white, mostly middle-class, highly protected environments of the small-town Midwest, but Jim knows better. In the incredible rock garden outside his backdoor, he sees it all. People, especially fellow writers, think of him as a kind of hermit, somebody without a cellphone or computer—he still writes on a manual typewriter—a guy who’s built a personal world where he can shut himself away and live and write in the relative isolation of small-town America. But nothing could be further from the truth. Jim Bowsher is one of the most socially connected and sociologically savvy people you’d ever want to meet, even if he will, yes, go to just about any length to protect his privacy. But his backyard—which he has turned into a public space for solace, healing and meditation—is a veritable magnet for kids in trouble.
Jim's amazing creation is a magnet for wayward kids. 
Like another kid he told me about the last time I was here. This was a teen he started seeing at just about any hour that he ventured into the sprawling yard and he quickly figured out that the boy was homeless. Or rather, that things had been so bad in what he had once called home that, as soon as he felt he was old enough to pull it off, he plucked up his courage and lit out on his own. He drifted from place to place until a ride he’d hitched with a trucker deposited him on the eastern edge of Wapakoneta, next to I-75. He asked around trying to find work, a place to stay, somewhere to make a little money and to get out of the elements awhile.
Long story short, somebody suggested he drop by the rock garden and see Jim. Typically, Jim went to the mat for the kid, pressing him to get his story off his chest, to talk over what was bothering him, and then began the work of trying to make a better world for him. Eventually, Jim not only found the kid a job, but a place to stay and a surrogate family all under one roof.
So everything went along fine until, one day, Jim hears from the kid’s employer cum guardian. The guy says he doesn’t know what to do. He’s reached an impasse with the kid on the subject of garbage. Garbage? Yes, the guy says, garbage. The kid flatly refuses to have anything to do with it. When he’s asked to take the garbage out, he says no, on no uncertain terms.
“How’s he doing otherwise?” Jim wants to know.
“Oh great! Don’t get me wrong. He’s a great kid, a hard worker, responsible. I have no complaints. And, personally, we’ve become friends, I think. It’s just this one thing. We can’t get past it.”
Garbage, it seems, is a sticking point, a frontier, a limit the kid refuses to cross. So Jim says, “Let me talk to him.”
In the safe haven of Jim’s backyard, he and the kid get together. “What’s going on with work?” Jim asks the kid.
“Nothing,” the kid answers. “It’s all good.” He likes the work and he really likes the boss. The guy’s solid, like a father to him, he indicates.
“So what’s this about the garbage?” Jim asks.
Suddenly, the kid’s expression turns dark. He says he doesn’t want to talk about it.
“But you’re going to have to,” Jim says. The guy doesn’t know what’s going on, Jim explains. He’s baffled.
But the kid insists he doesn’t want to talk about it. If they make him take out the garbage, he’ll leave.
“Do you think you’re above taking out the garbage?” Jim asks.
“No,” he says, “I just don’t want to do it.”
“Why don’t you tell me the real reason?” Jim says.
After a lot of back and forth in which the kid is adamant that if he has to handle garbage detail he’ll leave, he finally overcomes his embarrassment and shame and tells Jim the real problem: “If I have to take out the garbage,” he says, “I’ll end up eating it.”
There’s a pregnant pause. Even Jim, who has seen a lot—worked in the prison system, worked, indeed, on death row in intimate contact with the inmates and their horrific stories—is taken aback. But as the kid explains further, it all makes sense. The kid says it’s that he spent so much time fending for himself from a very young age that dumpster scavenging has become a habit, an obsession. In that world, one person’s waste becomes another’s fortune, nutrition on which to survive another day. It’s crazy all the perfectly good food Americans throw away, he indicates.
This, Jim realizes, is a separate reality, a world of unimaginable emotional pain, sorrow and abandonment, one far too few people in the Western World want to think about, and one that people in a small, relatively prosperous, Midwestern town like Wapakoneta can simply not fathom. But here it is, reality “live”, in Jim’s backyard, in the warm embracing shadow of the Temple of Tolerance that he has built stone by stone and story by story, in the name of anyone who has ever felt oppressed.
The stone from the swimming hole in the Auglaize.
Now, Jim and I meet up in the backyard and after a brief greeting, we take up practically where we left off when I was here a year ago. He’s preparing to inaugurate a new section of the garden, he tells me, and he’d literally been stuck between a rock and a hard place. He’d managed to haul in a huge new boulder as a kind of centerpiece for the new section, he tells me, but once they’d gotten it off the truck and onto the ground, things had been so dry that they hadn’t been able to get the thing to budge. So he had been delighted when it rained because he and his crew (usually his brother Walt and whoever else they can get to volunteer) had finally been able to get the giant stone to slide and had shimmied it, little by little, into precisely the right orientation.
What was the story on this stone—just that, in my eyes, a great round rock with a somewhat flattened top—and why was its orientation so important? This, he tells me, was the rock that used to sit on the edge of a deep swimming hole in the Auglaize River, which runs through our town. My own childhood memories of the river were written a mile or so downstream on the other side of town. But this rock was from a part of the river on the east side, before the Auglaize flows around the big bend and cuts west past the back of downtown. All the kids on his end of town used to use that rock as a kind of landing or diving board, as a place from which to swim. Jim’s aunt, who would later become a swimming instructor, had learned to swim from that rock, and so had he and Walt.
Jim excitedly shows me the initials brother Walt and his friend 
Rick 
carved into the "swimming stone".
He’s suddenly excited. “Look at this, Dan,” he urges, ushering me over closer to the huge boulder. “These are my brother’s initials, and these are his friend Rick’s,” he says, showing me the letters crudely carved, probably with pocketknives, into the relatively soft surface of the sedimentary stone. Getting the heavy stone set just right in the yard was important, Jim explains, because he wanted it to be oriented exactly as it had been in the river on the edge of the swimming hole. During some recent dredging operation, it had been hauled out of the Auglaize and placed on the bank. Jim decided to grab it before somebody decided bust it up or something.
But there are lots more surprises in this new section of the garden: big blocks of Ohio sandstone culled from the demolition of the Williamson School (torn down before Jim and I, now in our mid-sixties, ever saw the inside of a kindergarten) set like benches near a wrought iron fence that once bordered a local cemetery, and an iron gate from a nearby farm that doubled as a social club during the Prohibition days. My gaze also lands on some elaborate tinwork, of the sort found on the walls and ceilings of high-quality
Jim stands by masonry from the Williamson School and a gate
from a farm that doubled as a roadhouse in Prohibition days. 
architecture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
I get out my reading glasses for a closer look and hear Jim chuckle under his breath as I try to decide what the strange gargoyle-like figure etched in relief in the middle of each tin square might be. “People think it’s a demon,” Jim says, “but it’s not. It’s a vampire! See the little fangs? They’re from Ma McGrady’s house of ill-repute,” he says with apparent pride.
Jim explains that when the oil boom came to the area in the late eighteen hundreds, Ma McGrady’s place did a booming business of its own with oilfield roughnecks. And the city fathers felt it was a good idea to turn a blind eye on the establishment, since its existence meant transient oil people weren’t hanging around town trying to pick up what townsfolk referred to as “decent local girls.” Not surprisingly, however, Jim says, many of the city fathers themselves soon began frequenting the place as did farmers from the surrounding area. And Ma’s position became even more secure thanks to the secrets she guarded. She would eventually become a bit of a local personality.
Tinwork from Ma McGrady's house of ill-repute
When Ma McGrady fell ill in her latter years, it was rumored that the person who had taken the greatest care of her had been a local Lutheran preacher. He had been, the story went, the only person to visit her regularly and to take her nourishing soups and home remedies. Later asked in a rare interview if it was true that the only person to care for her during those dark days had been the preacher, she responded, according to Jim, that “No, he wasn’t the only one...but he was the only one who didn’t ask for anything in return.”
We continue walking together through the maze of stones, pillars, slabs, gates, fences, façade ornaments and millstones—scores, hundreds, maybe thousands of them—but incredibly, each of them with a story of its own. Jim knows them all and every time he recounts them, it’s with the enthusiasm of a first telling. But now the sun’s setting and it’s getting really chilly. As we go up his back steps into the house, I glance at my watch and say, “Hey, what time were we expected for supper?”
It's a vampire!
Evading the answer, Jim says, “Yeah, don’t worry, we’re fine. We’ll go in a minute.”
But inside his incredibly jam-packed museum of a house he sees me glancing at an item on the coffee-table and asks with a grin, “Know what that is?”
Looking at the heavy glass object with a kind of basin molded in the top of it, I say, “An inkwell.”
“Not just any inkwell,” Jim says, “Trotsky’s inkwell.” And so he tells me the amazing story of how he came by this rare piece on a visit to Mexico, where exiled Russian Marxist icon and enemy of Stalin, Leon Trotsky, was murdered in 1940.
In point of fact, Jim admits that when he first got the piece, he had no real way of corroborating its authenticity. But precisely because of how he came to possess it, he was sure in his own mind that it was the real deal. Suffice it to say he didn’t barter for it in a bazaar on some backstreet in Tijuana.
Trotsky and Frida: The inkwell she gave him? 
Typical of Jim, however, he couldn’t let it alone until he was able to find hard evidence and dug through every picture of Trotsky in Mexico that he could find anywhere until he finally came across a rare image of the Marxist ideologue sitting at his desk in the studio where he would ultimately be mortally wounded by Stalinist assassin Ramón Mercader. And there, on his desk, was the inkwell. It’s an interesting piece, not your run-of-the-mill ink bottle, and, according to Jim, a perfect match with the one in the picture he came across in his research. The chances of this not being the same one, then, were slim to none. Jim is further enticed by the probability that this is the same inkwell that Trotsky is rumored to have received as a gift from Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, who, it is also rumored, took Trotsky as her lover for a time.
For Jim, there’s no such thing as an inanimate object. Objects, to his mind, absorb history, sentiments, images, DNA. They tell and keep stories. They are magnets for the business of life! Practically everything in his house bears testimony to this credo. There is almost nothing here that doesn’t have a story behind it.  
“Do you know what this means?” Jim asks me excitedly. “This inkwell was a witness to Trotsky’s assassination!”
And a particularly gruesome assassination at that: Mercader slammed an ice-axe into Trotsky’s skull while his back was turned.
“The inkwell witnessed that,” Jim says. “The killer may even have been reflected in it as he sneaked up behind Trotsky!”
And from the inkwell, we go to his late great-grandmother’s scrapbook that she keep from age eleven until well into her teens, and here Jim summons up all of his incredible storytelling power and for a moment he almost literally turns into a ninety-year-old lady, clutching the precious scrapbook to her breast and proclaiming in a weak and scratchy voice, “I want you to have this, Jim, because I know you’re the only one who will take care of it and keep it safe.” And along with him, as the scrapbook opens, I see the child and the adolescent in this elderly lady come to life again.
It’s as we’re perusing the pages of the scrapbook that our mutual friend calls my cell and says we had better be on our way to her house because if we’re late, everything is going to be a soggy mess.
In the car, on the way to her house, our non-stop dialogue continues and finally Jim says, “Gol-darn-it, Dan, there’s just never enough time.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” I say. “And it seems like there’s less all the time.”


Friday, May 13, 2016

HEARTFELT THANKS FROM ME TO YOU


As often happens to free-lancers, for the last couple of months I’ve been very busy. That’s a fact, not an excuse.

But then again, no excuse (or fact) is worthy when it means taking for granted the kindness and loyalty of the people who support you, and one fact that comes home to me every time I check my blog stats is that the readership I’ve gathered for this blog is loyal and kind beyond all logic. The facts speak for themselves: In the past eight years, this blog has burgeoned from a mere handful of readers to peaks of literally thousands of hits for certain particularly popular entries. But what inspires me the most—as well as shames me—is that, during long periods like my latest hiatus, when I fail to publish a single line for  weeks on end, the stats show that a faithful core readership checks in here between six hundred and seven hundred fifty times a month to see what’s new! Furthermore, many of those who find nothing new go back through the index and read pieces they might have missed in the past.
I just want you all to know that I am overwhelmed with gratitude for this, the kindest gesture any writer can ask for—that people are eager to read his/her work. That’s why I decided this week to impose a twice-monthly blog deadline on myself, and I will give those deadlines for The Southern Yankee priority over any other activity, not for the sake of self-discipline, but to reward the extraordinary persistence and loyalty of my readers. That said, as of today, The Southern Yankee will present a new entry, at the very least, on the 13th and 27th of every month...as well as whenever else the spirit moves me to post additional pieces.
When I started this blog in 2008, I really didn’t have very high hopes for it.
For one thing, although I became a professional Internet user very early on, in the mid-nineties, it was out of necessity rather than choice, since I had decided to leave the big city (Buenos Aires), where I’d been making a living in journalism for twenty years, to take up a life that my wife and I had long dreamed of, in the relative wilds on the outskirts of a Patagonian ski resort in the Andes Mountains. Though we had actually wanted to make our new life in an even more remote area, this was as far away as we could get from civilization and still have access to at least barely adequate communications.
The Internet (in a timid dial-up version) arrived, only shortly after we did, through the local electric power cooperative and I was one of the first customers for it. Before that, I had to send work I did for a magazine, a news agency or other publishing operations via fax, first through a telephone exchange five miles away and, a little  later, from my own mountain home, after a long, uphill battle with the phone company—that convincingly reached the office of its president in Buenos Aires, a thousand miles away—until they finally agreed to put up twenty-five posts and string cable over a mile in from the highway along a twisting, climbing mountain lane to my cabin.
So it wasn’t like I was a nerdy Internet enthusiast. On the contrary, everything I learned, and continue to learn, about life on line is basically intuitive and via trial and error, since I have never been able to muster the interest or wherewithal to sit through any sort of course on computing, cybernetics, apps or the Internet per sé. For me, all of that is merely a tool—if an absolutely marvelous one—for sharing my work and my writing with my clients and with the world. And were it not a matter of necessity, I would surely still be writing this on one of several sturdy desk model manual typewriters that I’ve owned over the years.
For another thing, I had no knowledge whatsoever of the effectiveness of the social media in getting out the word about what you’re doing. The fact is that I only joined Facebook and then started a blog to placate a New York writer friend with whom I had worked in Buenos Aires, who was trying to help me find a literary agent and/or publisher for my fiction and non-fiction creative work. His point was a valid one: namely, that I would have to be a really egocentric ninny to think that anyone would remember my days as a Buenos Aires editor, columnist and foreign correspondent when I hadn’t had any serious visibility in the mainstream media for over a decade and a half. Blogging and Facebook were, he insisted, good tools for rebuilding my writing reputation after years of anonymous editing, research and translating.
So, applying a strategy called “controlled folly”, as suggested by brilliant if controversial writer Carlos Castaneda, I set out to write a blog, and the first article was on the subject of precisely the question I’d been wrestling with: Why blog?  (http://southernyankeewriter.blogspot.com.ar/2008/07/so-why-blog.html)  My answer, sifted through Castaneda’s sieve of the ridiculous, was the same as that of John Updike, who was quoted in that first entry: Why not?
At first, it was just a matter of getting the material out there. Having a blog gave me an “excuse” to write for myself instead just for hire. It challenged me to come up not only with new topics, new angles, new creative ideas, but also to revisit old memories and issues that had haunted me for years. It further challenged me to dig long lost manuscripts out of their hiding places in drawers, closets and disused briefcases and re-read them with a judiciously self-critical eye to see whether they were truly the serious works I’d thought they were when I wrote them or if they were, in the end, no more than random doodles of little or no value.
And so I started publishing. At first, practically no one read my blog. But I was also learning the ropes of communicating through Facebook and once I figured out how to post a link to the blog, things started looking up. Having written, back in the day, for a daily paper with a readership in the tens of thousands, and having been a stringer for major mass circulation newspapers and magazines in the US and Britain, the paltry early results of blogging seemed hardly worth the effort. But like a novice writer, despite a thirty-five-year career as a wordsmith, I found myself beaming when I would check my stats and see that a piece in my blog had gotten fifty or sixty hits. And when I started getting my first comments from readers, I was ecstatic. Why? Because this was all mine—the ideas, the words, the medium, the writing and, above all, the readers.
In short, I just want to say a heartfelt “thank you” to all of you for reading me, for identifying with what I write, for telling me how you feel both here and in Facebook, for taking the trouble to register as regular Followers of this blog, and for giving me the key element every writer needs to keep turning out stories and ideas: a faithful and responsive readership.
Many thanks, and I’ll see you here every 13th and 27th from now on.