Post law-enforcement, I’ve been engaged in a years-long exercise at “uncopping.” This is necessary because living that life — if you were ever any good at it — requires an unsustainable level of vigilance and a willingness to fight or nurse on a dime that is damaging mentally, physically, and spiritually. To do that job well in the face of a citizenry that almost universally, and simultaneously, cares nothing about the job and despises the people who do it, requires something of the Tao of Barnes, the “I am reality” foil from Oliver Stone’s ode to poor discipline, a declining empire, and cosmic angst, in the movie “Platoon”.
That effort is necessary for me because I don’t want to end up where some of my colleagues have, which is dead within five years of leaving the job. It’s necessary because, as Stone’s young infantry private Taylor learns, there are always forces at work in the world competing to possess our soul. In Taylor’s case, he’s drawn to the orbit of Sgt. Elias, played with self-consciously cherubic enthusiasm by Willem Dafoe and meant to represent the reluctant warrior, the escapee from Plato’s Cave, who knows the real score and is meant to be loved for his idealism. In his movie, which is mostly bad, Stone sets up a simple binary choice for the audience: Barnes bad, Elias good, with a dollop of America the Monster.
But it really isn’t that simple.
I was having coffee with Jim the other day down in Sisters town, at a fine greasy spoon called The Gallery, which up until a few weeks ago had an excellent collection of old rifles hung up on the walls, and where a regular collection of regular guys gather most mornings to stare down the pies and get their daily dose of good cheer from the gals working the counter. The Gallery serves a heap of great diner food for not a lot of money, if you are into that sort of thing, and they still have a wooden indian in the entryway which is a throwback to an era before every statue of every thing was denounced as a symbol of racism, imperialism, or whatever.
I like to eat there. I like to sit in a semi-comfortable booth with the big picture windows looking out over Cascade Avenue and write, and think, and eat my eggs over medium with hash browns and a fat patty of sausage while actively eavesdropping on the other patrons.
Jim and I talked at length about this site, and what we are trying to do here, and we recognized that we have landed on a potential trap door, which is a tendency to diagnose the ills of the world without providing a prescription to battle the inevitable combat fatigue that strikes every one of us who are trying to live in it.
That conversation caused me to think about Stone’s movie, about some of the more obvious and binary choices we have, and plenty of other things too, but what I landed on was, I realized, the principle problem I’m wrestling with now that I no longer live behind the shield, no longer kick in doors and buttstroke dopers, no longer comfort distraught mothers and maniacal fathers who just lost their infant to SIDS. The problem is how to live in this world as a romantic, an idealist, while accepting exactly what the world is. And not just accepting it, but embracing it. Somewhere in that very difficult formula is where I want to be. It’s a hybrid of Barnes and Elias, not the binary and therefore meaningless symbols meant to school us all up in the genius vision of Oliver Stone.
That’s a much taller order than it would seem. Especially for us romantics.
Over the weekend my wife and I were out in town again, be-bopping through the aisles of our local everything store. Bi-Mart is a kind of hybrid universe where one can buy anything from canning supplies to firearms, and pick up prescriptions or a new flat-screen television. It’s a kind of miniature Costco without the overwhelming impression of having just walked into a predatory Borg Machine. As we were cruising the aisles I saw a friend, snuck up behind him, and put my finger pistol in his back. We had a good laugh and the conversation somehow quickly turned to the idea that we need more Dukes, and less Pukes, in our world. And we really did mean The Duke, as in John Wayne, and it has become something of a running conversation between us now. “Way to be a Duke,” we now say to each other on Bookface.
And there is a particular version of the Duke I appreciate most, which was John Wayne’s turn in “The Shootist.” You might recall that film, Wayne’s last, where in real life he had already lost a lung to cancer, and where in the film he portrays an old territorial gunfighter who settles at a boarding house in Carson City, Nevada, to live out his final days. Predictably, the young man of the house is enraptured by Wayne, the barber collects the clippings from his last haircut, the Sheriff wants him out of town on the next train, and pretty much everybody wants him dead. That’s true even of Lauren Bacall, who runs the boarding house.
There is a scene in the film where Bacall, ever the scold, leaps all over Mr. Books, until finally he looks up from his meal, the vision of a man questioning how he has lived his life on earth, and where his soul might end up, battling the perceptions and the demons and the cancer that wants to possess him, and he tells her quietly, perfectly: “I’m just a dying man afraid of the dark.”
In a sense that is all of us, if we are being honest. Not many of us live the Bushido code, and when we do, it’s a soul-sucking enterprise that has the ironic effect of killing those who believe they are already dead. Bushido is more complicated than that, but I have a sense that it is yet another human attempt to deny some ever-present realities of the world, which is the opposite of the place I want to be. I’ve seen the reality, I’ve been Barnes. But I don’t want that anymore because we are not dead. We are very much alive, and we always have choices.
So that is the struggle. As an antidote and a motivator my wife and I have been trying to build something here on our little place. Call it artificial. Call it a playground. For us, it is a real thing, a kind of spiritual life-raft and firewall all built into one little ten acre place we call the Figure 8, and we have populated our little ark with animals who provide us with, variously, both food and spiritual succor. We are trying, in our own little way, to build a new community against a life that ends like Books’, or Barnes’, or Elias’.
And that’s a good start.