Not so long ago I bottomed out. It was a hard stoppage.
If you’ve ever been out on the desert, driving too fast on nominal roads, and suddenly high-centered your rig in the rocks, you’ll have some idea what this felt like. There were some nasty scraping sounds as my skid plate dragged over the rocks, followed by a solid “kathunk” and a jaw-jamming loss of forward movement. Things on the backseat ended up on the dashboard. My seatbelt locked up like a parachute harness and there might have been some whiplash. It was all quite unexpected because I was actually at a dinner party. This was happening internally and so no one around me had any idea. I took a sip from my beer and sat with it for a minute and then, much like you would out on the desert, I got out and took a long look around.
I didn’t like what I was looking at. Not one bit.
There are cures for the things that ail us. Every one of those cures starts with discipline, and discipline starts with the ability to conduct an honest personal evaluation. Jocko Willink, among others, has turned the entire Extreme Discipline idea into an industry, and he’s not wrong. His status as a commander of SEALs lends him credibility although having spent 4 years and two deployments working intimately with SEALs I found them, in real life, to be among the least disciplined bunch of people I’ve ever known. Maybe things have changed but celebrity rarely bends bad habits back into their proper shape.
These personal wrecks are good to have on occasion because they demand evaluation. Walking around the bent frame and hissing radiator of my high-centered self, it was clear that I needed to make some course corrections and plot a better route for the second and third acts in my life. When I have these moments, and I’ve had them a few times, I almost instantly think of the badger, because he is an animal that can teach us a few things.
“Hey baby, you put me on hold and I’m
Out in the wind and it’s getting
Colder than a gut shot bitch wolf dog
With nine suckling pups pulling a number four trap
Up a hill in the dead of winter
In the middle of a snowstorm
With a mouth full of porcupine quills”
‑Tom Waits, Nighthawks at the Diner
When I was a boy one of my uncles had a side hustle trapping badgers out on the desert. He gave me a beautifully tanned pelt that I promptly stretched into a shield cover and took to school. My thought was the badger hide gave me strong medicine and would ward off stick spears and pinecone grenades, but on the playground battlefields of Janesville elementary school it brought only moderate success. Recess raids could be brutal. The shield itself was beautiful to look at and for a while our teacher hung it on the wall behind her desk like a totem. I kept that badger hide close to hand for many decades but it finally got lost when I moved out of Arizona chased by a late summer haboob.
I wish I had it back.
Having that hide like a binky blanket for so many years gave me an interest in badgers. If it had to do with badgers I paid attention, and that attention once brought me around to a profile of Gerry Spence by Ed Bradley on 60 Minutes. This was a long time ago. Spence was hauling Bradley around his ranch in Wyoming, pointing out buffalo jumps and old tipi rings and waxing on the creation of his Trial Lawyers College, a non-profit that trains lawyers and takes only cases from ordinary people — no big money, no corporations. Spence, who for many years ran around in buckskin and fringe like Brando during his “Indian Period”, is mostly famous for being one of the greatest defense attorneys in American history. I’ve evaluated that claim under high-powered glass and it is probably accurate. I spent a long time as a cop and have no love for a certain brand of criminal defense attorney, but then again I’m awfully goddamned glad we have them. That’s true because when Big America is finished reshaping me into an outlaw — which they are actively working on every day — it’s possible I will need a good one. At any rate, Spence dragged Bradley around until finally they stopped at a badger hole somewhere on the ancient and wind scoured Wyoming steppe.
The badger, Spence said, and he wasn’t kidding, never bothers anybody. But if you put your hand down in his hole, it’s likely he’ll take it off to the elbow. Described in that uniquely Spence dramatic fashion, and enjoying the startled look on Ed Bradley’s face, I seized the image in my teeth and have never let it go.
Because that’s precisely how I want to live. Because I don’t go putting my hand down anyone’s hole. It’s true that my fights are all defensive. I don’t start them. But I’ve noticed that Big America today seems to specialize in probing my den to see what they might haul out of it. I sit in the bottom looking upward to the sky and see their reaching flashy fingers. Spence’s bigger point was that the badger is a kind of riffraff, and really, if we are paying attention, the riffraff is us.
So, those are some of the reasons the badger is forever tattooed on my soul. Like the badger, I am prone to cycles of torpor. Like the badger, I’m not above working with coyotes to get a job done. Like the badger, I find that the coyotes often reap the greater benefit. Also, the badger knows that nobody ever wins a siege. He sees security in mobility, and when he moves out, which he frequently does, he leaves behind a fine place for someone else to live.
Scanning the shitshow of Big American politics I’ve lost confidence that we can do much better than take up the badger life. It’s a theory and maybe it doesn’t hold up but I’m interested in much longer time lines these days — which tend to render the immediate political stews thin and watery. The Lakota Black Elk told John Neihardt that he liked the idea of making decisions that would stand up for seven generations. We don’t have that art. Certainly we don’t have that patience. And anyway, my parliament of personal demons is a continual shouting match, I don’t need a rally in Toledo or a debate in Las Vegas throwing fuel on that fire. And I won’t be voting this time around. I’m on a deep reconnaissance. I’ll stand in the corner or sit in the back seat of a cold car and just watch the comings and goings, licking my pencil and keeping notes. Maybe I’ll dig my den a little deeper with an eye on moving out by morning. But I’ll have to do all that without drinking because I hung that up after high-centering in the hard desert of a dinner party.
But that’s discipline. And it’s also badger theory, which is merely a thing I made up, and which sometimes feels like the soul-sucking, windblown, tumbleweed blues.