Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Parable of the Cow's Head: There Is No Language to Describe the Terminal Horror of It

Dead Cow Skull - After Thaw Pre Maceration Rot


I purchased a cow's head from a Mexican butcher that just reeked of horror and violence.

Took a some graphic photos which you can see here and by following this link.  Note that all of these photos are after thawing, pre-hot water maceration.

My idea was to "clean it" and document the process. When I lived in Austin, I had enough of a back-yard to throw skulls in buckets with Biz bleach and let 'em stew for a week, then knock them out of the bucket and let the elements and insects do the rest.


here in Bellingham, I don't have that luxury. My plan was to keep it in the fridge so that it wouldn't rot, carve away a little more flesh each day.

Dead Cow Skull - After Thaw Pre Maceration Rot


my fridge broke. And the cow's head was too big for my oven or any pot to boil it in. There was nothing else to do but get a 70 quart translucent plastic tub, fill it full of hot water and some bleach and let it sit for a day or two. The so-called "hot water maceration technique". I figured I would then load it into the back of my car and take it out to the country to dump the fluid, scrape off the rest of the meat and use a coat hanger wire to scoop out the brain from the hole where the spine used to be.


when I tried to move the tub, the secure top would not stay on because it was so heavy. So I carefully slid it into my bathroom, next to the toilet, and got a saucepan to bail out the fluid.

Dead Cow Skull - After Thaw Pre Maceration Rot

I have smelled horrible things in my life.

But when I opened the lid to that 70 quarts of blood and brain and rotting head... there is no language to describe the terminal horror of that stench. It was beyond nausea. It made me want to kill myself so that my brain would not have to even remember the smell. It was like an animate creature that reached into the most primal parts of my brain tissue and fiendishly milked out ever drop of fear and loathing and disgust and absolute reversion. I immediately got a headache. There was a high pitched whine, a keening sound, piercing my thoughts. The only way I can express the sense of it is to say that for the first time in my richly experienced 50 plus years, I smelled evil.


I had to oh so motherfuckingly carefully transfer 70 quarts of the sticky-resinous-instantly-corrupting-anything-thing-it-came-in-contact-with fluid into my toilet.

After which,

myself covered in a cold sweat, my complexion deadly and green,

the cow's head was revealed in all of its congealed disgust and horror. Any thought of taking a photograph was instantly replaced with the burning need to never see this thing again. There was something unwelcomely intimate about having had to watch it slowly being revealed to me as I removed more and more of the blood brain rot water. A graphic strip-tease of horror that even with quick unwanted glances made it seem as if it were licking the inside of my eyes in some perverse sexual torture.

I quickly replaced the lid, loaded it into the Jeep.


I cleaned every surface of my kitchen and bathroom with bleach, boiling anything that came in contact with it, mopped the floor, vacuumed, and showered under the hottest water I could stand, soaping and rinsing several times, washing and conditioning my hair, cleaning under my nails, trimming my nails, flossing, brushing my teeth and flushing my nasal cavities with a Neti pot several times. I even rinsed my eyes with saline and then added redness-removing drops. And I still felt as if the thing were clinging to me as like a slimy fetid stinking loving animate creature with claws. I imagined it was in my breath, on my fingers, in my hair. I could taste it, smell it, hear it. Worse than the nastiest shit, worse than any skunk's spray, worse than any dead thing. I felt as if it had penetrated me and blossomed in the primal core of my brain. The only thing that I imagined would get me truly clean would be to hammer a hole in my skull and spoon out my brain.  The thought crossed my mind.


I went searching for a dumpster in a remote alley where I could dispose of it, where hopefully no human would have to come in contact with the thing in the 70 quart translucent plastic tub. Where no one would be tempted to open that lid. Where it would end up in a landfill, buried under tons of trash, forever lost. I felt like I was disposing of a weapon or an evil genie in a lamp.

I drove to a grocery store on the other side of town and turned down the alley. Instead of being deserted as I had hoped, I saw a car and two people on bikes. My drug radar instantly went off.

I drove slowly towards them and they all moved slightly to the side. Acting too casual. Looking at the strung-out woman in the car and the two young Mexican men on bikes, my suspicions were confirmed.

"Yeah, you know, we're just hanging out here in the back alley talking to this twitchy lady in the car. No big deal. Nothing to see."

I stopped the jeep about 20 yards away from them. They watched me closely as I got out and went around to the back to open the door and remove the horror that was in the 70 quart translucent plastic tub.

I set it down right in the middle of the alley.

They could see there was nothing good in there. I nodded to them briefly, got back in the jeep and drove slowly away, watching in the rear-view mirror. One of the Mexican guys approached the tub and kicked off the lid. The other beside him. I saw each of them sort of jump back and stumble. I imagined I heard a yell or a scream. But then I turned the corner and was gone.

As I drove away...

I imagined what effect that would have had on me during one of my high-strung drug deals in the back-alleys of Austin.

I imagined the woman seeing the two guys run off without giving her the drugs, wondering what had just happened. She gets out of her car, smells it immediately but still has to see. Strung out, hungry, nerves on edge, tender, vulnerable, she walks over to see what it is. Just the horror of it leaping right into her brain like a snake striking.

I half-wished I would have thought it out more and placed a sign there that simply said: "Don't Do Drugs."

But, man, I began to laugh. I figured that was about the only thing I could have done to somewhat balance out the monstrosity of what that cow's head was.


I still feel oddly bruised by the situation. The violence of the cow's head. It won't leave me. It has infected my eating. Anything meat or anything with a meatish consistency takes me right back to it. I feel like I am always eating dinner in a slaughterhouse.

I'll be vegetarian for a while, I imagine.

P.S. I drove back by the next day. It was, of course, gone. I do feel bad for that poor grocery store employee that had to deal with that. However, it was in a 70 quart translucent plastic tub. It did have a lid. The dumpster was 20 feet away. And I'd like to believe that it might deter drug deals from going on anymore in the alley. But I know that it won't.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Anodyne for Stephen Crane


 I saw grief drinking a cup of sorrow and called out, “It tastes sweet, does it not?”

“You’ve caught me,” grief answered, “And you’ve ruined my business. 
How can I sell sorrow, when you know it’s a blessing?”

- Rumi

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The creature, naked, bestial...

I often return to this brief poem by Stephen Crane:

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter—bitter,” he answered; 
“But I like it
“Because it is bitter,
“And because it is my heart.”

Crane died at 29.

This is from the Red Badge of Courage:

"He occasionally tried to fathom a comrade with seductive sentences. He looked about to find men in the proper mood. All attempts failed to bring forth any statement which looked in any way like a confession to those doubts which he privately acknowledged in himself. He was afraid to make an open declaration of his concern, because he dreaded to place some unscrupulous confidant upon the high plane of the unconfessed from which elevation he could be derided."

I think of William James' "moral equivalent of war". I read all of Crane as dark internal confession. All of his work is "an open declaration of his concern". It seems to surprise readers to learn Crane never fought in a war. But he did. The internal war every human wages within themselves. The Devil rides... perched on the shoulder wearing a coat of angelic wings.

There are two creatures within me: the beast and the man. And I have always nourished the roots that feed the man. The water of life and love and hope. But I sense those darker currents also, secretly feeding the beast.

To remind me of how much of my thinking is cliche, there is this often repeated tale:

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. 
“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.” 
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?” 
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.” [source]

I find it curious that this tale is given provenance to Native Americans when it was actually said by Billy Graham, a sort of reverse cultural appropriation. The thinking seems to be that it has more "authenticity" as a Native American tale than it does coming from the mouth of an evangelical Christian. No guilt over the genocide of the People who we would like to have once spoken such "truths". There is no better truth, no truer truth. Just truth, the most obvious thing in the world. Chop wood, carry water. Have you washed your bowls this morning? The fish asking what water is.

But what is it all in the end? Just a language game? A riddle to live by? Aesopian mystery? It all seems a Lie to me. Hollow figures of speech like skin over bones with no meat underneath. What feeds on these bones, the skin of this language?

My thoughts skitter and burn in the fire of my brain these days. Everything seems a worn out cliche, a tired old hole, a hoary maxim, Ecclesiastes exhausted, all language beat down and chewed over until every bright and shining poem and is reduced to a flavorless ruminated cud in my mouth. Nothing is new under the sun. In the most literal sense. Dry bones baked into dust. And these bones cannot live. There is no divine breath to animate them.

I sweep my bed clean every morning of all the dust of decay accumulated there in the night. My room is full of desert sand that was once the kingdom of Ozymandias. My wet blood, spit, sweat, snot, piss, shit and semen soaked fat flesh hangs like a scarecrow's corpse on my bones. Everything is empty, been hollowed out.

What am I?

James wrote of a period of "spiritual vastation" epitomized by a "black-haired youth with greenish skin":

"I went one evening into a dressing room in the twilight to procure some article that was there, when suddenly there fell upon me without warning, just as if it came out of the darkness, a horrible fear of my own existence. Simultaneously there arose in my mind the image of an epileptic patient whom I had seen in the asylum, a black-haired youth with greenish skin … who used to sit all day on one of the benches, or rather shelves against the wall, with his knees drawn up against his chin, and the coarse gray undershirt, which was his only garment, drawn over them enclosing his entire figure. He sat there like a sort of sculptured Egyptian cat or Peruvian mummy, moving nothing but his black eyes and looking absolutely non-human. This image and my fear entered into a species of combination with each other. That shape am I, I felt, potentially. Nothing that I possess can defend me against that fate, if the hour for it should strike for me as it struck for him.” 

"That shape am I, potentially,"

I am aware of it always. Over the last two years, I see variants of this figure every day: men and women, once vital and charismatic, fathers and mothers, teachers and bankers, each sitting there like Peruvian mummies, dead but still manifesting the symptoms of being alive. I watched the slow death of my mother. And now, my stepfather. And I am aware of those deep black waters nourishing the lesser elements of my being. Something down there is nourishing itself on this.

I don't know actual war. But I know the internal war of Stephen Crane's. The Red Badge as allegory. And I realize my own private war and the epic drama that is unfolding within me is all too common. Millions - a number I have difficulty conceiving in any real manner - millions of other humans are going through such a similar drama that they are virtually identical to me.

A colony of ants numbers just over a million. And one ant on the outskirts of the colony, singing a sad song of self-awareness and conflicted duality, means next to nothing.  Enough. But just barely. Again Kafka, the prophet of our times: There is hope, just none for us.

I often wonder about becoming something utterly different than what I am. In these moments, I can taste the freedom and hope of what it was to be on the other side of life - where more was in front than was behind. Before I started wearing down my path, dragging my feet through the rut of the world. I consider that I can still be whomever I want. And I consider becoming an opposite formulation: The Great Hater.

Here is the wound that opens between Crane's "creature, naked, bestial" and his "open declaration".

I think about the world I wished for. I think about the world I have inherited. And I know there is no justice in this world. Justice, it has been said, is for the next world. And there is no next world. However, between the life imagined and the life lived there is an abyss. And in this abyss - this place without depth, no bottom to touch upon - resentment breeds and grows. Nietzsche says,

"the man of ressentiment is neither upright nor naive nor honest and straightforward with himself. His soul squints; his spirit loves hiding places, secret paths and back doors, everything covert entices him as his world, his security, his refreshment; he understands how to keep silent, how not to forget, how to wait, how to be provisionally self-deprecating and humble’."

Resentment ferments into venom. Venom infects the language. Eats away at the future tense. Sickens hope.

Nelson Mandela and the Buddha have reputedly said:  “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”

Mandela merely lifted it from some source. And what the Buddha actually said was:

“By doing this you are like a man who wants to hit another and picks up a burning ember or excrement in his hand and so first burns himself or makes himself stink.” Visuddhimagga IX, 23. [source]

Nothing is original. And this poison confuses my analogy. I stand by my venom.

Pilate asked, "What is truth?"

The Greek word which was translated as truth is aletheia which means "the state of not being hidden", "un-concealed-ness", "un-forgetting".

Does it matter? Truly matter? Perhaps Pilate was merely being ironic.

The difference between venom of thought and poison of hope is all that matters.

There is an old riddle of why the snake does not die after it eats the creature it killed by its own venom.

The creature, naked, bestial...

I like it because it is bitter.

And because it is my heart.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

This mis-carried life

"Der Krieg" - Otto Dix, 1924

It is relentless,
this pain of being,
defying the palliative caress
of habit and blanketings
of unmindfulness and forgetting.

The insistent presence of it,
a keening wire
of noise in the brain,
heated through with currents
of ever increasing potency.

These thoughts,
like barbarians
at the gate of my soul,
I entertain with mindless banter
and frantic antic dance,
parodies of welcome
designed to forestall
the inevitable crush inwards.

And the drilling replay
of the day's sad events
coring down through
the layers of the years
to the tender infant
memories of self,
that bawling apoplectic
red wad of meat,
spit out into this
fast panting world
of ever dawning darkness
and wrecks of dreams,
against its will.

Then the ceaseless tides
of consciousness
pooling soon enough
into stagnant realizations
of being
utterly forlorn,
and overfilled
with despair.

This mis-carried life,
hammered though with nails,
crucified to being,
infected with the dis-ease
of fifty odd years,
fifty too many,
shivering, feverish,
coughing, vomiting
up every shred of
evanescent pleasure and
always vanishing joy
until the only thing left
to purge itself of
is the bitter bile
of still being here.