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The Wiscasset Newspaper (Maine)

It Don't Look Like They're Here to Deliver the Mail

Chris Cooper

Daylight declines and the leaves fall. We imagine it is frost that colors then looses them, because the heat declines more or less during the same weeks as the erosion of daylength reaches the critical limit for each deciduous species, but it is latitude, not lack of warmth that brings on the fall. Then, in the last few days of October and through as much of November as might remain unencumbered by snow, our landscape is made by wind.

First the red maple leaves are shoved about, then sugar and silver maple, last the oaks, thick, brown, rich with tannin and slow to dampen or decay. Oak leaves compete with snow to build the early drifts of winter. The wind moves them, but they catch and stay or are diverted and moved on according to interruptions of the ground-a stump, a rock, a bicycle or a building. An open garage door creates a slack area where, when the wind is just so, oak leaves may enter but they will not leave until broom and shovel may be brought against them.

Each new tree, every stone wall extension or new cut road alters this flow. The dead tops of perennials catch and hold. Even grass is sticky compared to driveway. High ground is swept clean; depressions no longer show until, forgetting, we stumble into them. Among all this brown, this shifting mass, may glow some golden ginkgo leaves or a late persistent red or burgundy of another introduced species.

So it is, I think, in the interior landscape of men and women. Our intellectual, our emotional, our spiritual lives are accumulated. We are made more of what blows up against us and lodges than by what we set out to buy or build. The persons we meet, the books we read, the songs that we cannot shake free from pile up against us. Experiences drift and stick. In time it all composts. We absorb it and are changed by the infusion of our accumulated delights and disasters.

The popular press has it that we are all made by predictable patterns, that our lives cycle through some number of modes, changing according to our age. We are this at twenty, that at thirty-five, something other when we retire. Books have been written, fortunes made, platitudes spread wide on this foundation. I deny and reject this notion. The conventional wisdom and the pop psychologists and the evening news readers are, as usual, wrong.

I have met too many remarkable, unconventional, original, alarming men and women to accept that we all plod through some boring cycle of changes, putting on the suit of parenthood, accepting the comforting raincoat of career, moving finally to slippers and pajamas and acceptance of retirement, decline and death. Go read your books and study your charts; I'll just let life bang into me until the wind stops bringing new leaves or I can no longer pull myself out of the rough holes.

I heard a record on the radio. Well, that tells you something, doesn't it? A record. The radio. What a funny old man. In the autumn of his life, no doubt. So bugger off, kid. I heard a song by a new to me outfit called Over The Rhine, called "If A Song Could Be President." You may stop reading right here, go buy their CD, and you will understand the point of my preceding paragraphs: great and changeful things come to us, sometimes for the price of a fifty cent newspaper. This is a band you don't yet know, with songs you don't know you need.

They make appointment recommendations -- John Prine for the FBI, Emmylou Harris an ambassador. Steve Earle should bring us the news, the first lady would sing rhythm and blues, and we'd count Lightnin' Hopkins and Patsy Cline coequal to our founding fathers. It's a quirky but compelling song, and however odd or unlikely some of the cabinet recommendations, any of them would be immeasurably better than the losers and crazies and criminals on the payroll now.

My favorite line: "We'd make Neil Young a senator, even though he came from Canada." I like everything about this -- the slant rhyme, the choice of Neil, the idea that we'd get better senators by importing them from Canada than by electing the creeps put forward by the Demopublican one-party system. Every Neil Young record has some good, some great songs, and, to be sure, a few forgettable or even regrettable ones. But he's honest, he's decent, he's smart and creative and caring and hard working, and I could add another half dozen adjectives of like virtue without brushing up against one that applies to the singer-songwriter we've entrusted the soundboard to the last seven years.

I have read every article about the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates that The New Yorker, Harper's and Rolling Stone have published. Some ridicule me for this, telling me they're not interested in those persons, won't vote for them, don't wish to know more about them. But I feel (see above) that you can't know the utility of something truly until you own it and try it, and I've learned some useful things by reading some wretched works, so I've wallowed quite often in the stinking slough of Giuliani and Thompson and Clinton and Obama these several months, and I am disgusted and depressed by turns.

Rudy Giuliani is worse than Bush. Fred Thompson is dumber than a stump and less interesting. The Democrats are soaking up money from the same corporate sump, talking slightly left and running ever right. The November Harper's article is titled "Making Mitt Romney." It is illustrated with Mitt (now, there's a rich white guy name for you) as a grinning bobble-head doll, turning slightly left and quite far right and well-suited and ready to shake a voter's hand at every turn.

Mr. Romney, I learned, made his considerable money as a management consultant. This non-job, as near as I can tell, entails telling the incredibly overpaid executives of a corporation how to run their business. You look at such of their records as they may be willing to open to you (ever mistrustful because you may use what you learn to benefit your next client), you bring your powerful insights to bear, and you recommend changes. Often, "new directions" are indicated. Perhaps "strategic reformation." Incidentally, thousands of wage-earners may need to be laid off. A name change may be in order or a new logo or company colors. Lean, reconfigured, the firm will be ready to "hit the ground running" with its "new management team in place."

In a better world than this one, we would laugh at consultants. They would starve for lack of employment. In the worse world we're becoming, they are ever more important as image and bottom line alone matter. So the consultant team now creates the candidate, none more obviously made or fabricated or plastic than Mr. Mitt Romney. He has abandoned or repudiated all his previous vaguely liberal tenets so that he may run as a conservative. The true-believer Bible-clutching, family-values, nuke-Iran conservatives don't buy the chameleon in a new color necktie, but the consultant-approved "swing voter" may.

Or he or she may more likely put aside the creepy unease we all feel about Hillary Clinton because "at least she's a Democrat and we need change, and Bush has been so bad, and she might do the right thing once she gets elected and (fill in your own justification here." Either way, you'll be voting for a construct rather than a human being, a thing made from meetings and focus groups and polls and pandering. A creature of consultants, not human, not worthy, not likely to do you or your loved ones any good.

I have no solution. Only revolution, and we are too comfortable and too remote from our founding principles to essay that necessity. So we vote or don't. Rudy's too crazy, Fred's too slow and stupid. Their party and the press will not allow Kucinich or Gravel a forum or credit them "viable." We'll have Mitt or Hillary. The consultants will win.

Neil's new album, Chrome Dreams II is uneven as they come. That's Neil. He's still better on a bad day than most of the plastic pop acts at the top of their form. But just submit to the insistence of the eighteen-minute "Ordinary People" on this disc and you'll be as lost again as you once were to "Powderfinger" or "Heart Of Gold or anything on Ragged Glory. New or old, mediocre or great or merely pretty good, Neil Young never took a poll before he wrote or released a song and never asked a consultant if he should think or act in some way different from what he feels.

Track eight, "Ever After," is only three and a half minutes. But when it washed up against all the other songs and scraps of songs and loves and longings and fears and frustrations and cold days and dark nights and wild mercury moments and dreams chrome and otherwise of my life so far, it triggered several switches and opened other circuits.

My partner and I have a customer of decades standing for whom we work at less than our usual rate because he is of very modest means and because he is interesting. We would not wish to be him or even to live as he lives, perhaps, but that he is and does enriches us without taking from him. He collects things. Among his souvenirs is a die-cast model of an automobile, I think in about 1:24 scale, of a '57 Chevrolet. I remember it as red. Opening the trunk reveals that it conceals a bottle of whiskey-Jack Daniels, perhaps, or Canadian Club. Our friend is extremely proud of the fact that the seal on the neck of the bottle is intact; it has never been opened; its contents are unconsumed. This, he assures us, greatly increases the "book value" of this "collector's edition" artifact.

Neil's song, "Ever After," seems to me to be about the afterlife, or about some persistence of spirit or memory altogether more likely than the conventional Christian afterlife. It's Neil-who knows? It's a sweet and lovely and loving song.

Here's the fourth verse:

A man had many boxes

And he liked them quite a lot.

But they would not be opened

'Cause the value would be shot.

And isn't that just the nature of faith of all sorts, whether faith in a bottle or in an afterlife or a religion or a candidate for president? Your faith sustains you until you look into it, open it, study it, display or consume its contents. The more you know about the hard, concrete, everyday reality of things, the harder it is to sustain a belief that they are other than they appear. If the box cannot be opened without losing its value, what was the nature of that value? How big was the box, how deep, of what true worth?

You might keep the booze and assume it is worth more with each passing year. Or you might drink it and enjoy it for the ride it would give you, for the crash that it could precipitate, or for the unchanged empty shell of the vehicle that contained it all those years. Or you could keep it intact, riding your faith without looking, so to speak, under its hood.

I sometimes receive complaints that my work is too dense, abstruse, wordy or oblique. Perhaps I should be less indirect in laying out my point? Very well, then, I shall. Get ready for it. Here it is: All the Republicans and most of the Democrats who would be president would, were they opened and inspected, be found short of intellect, absent good intentions, compromised, bought, beholden, and antagonistic to the interests of ordinary persons lacking great wealth, oil wells or designs upon what is left of our abused and reduced environment. The more you might inspect these boxes, the more you'd see their value is shot. Thank you, Neil, for helping me clarify my position.

Vote for the candidate of your choice. They will give you a choice, however limited or difficult or unappealing, these consultants. Believe in whatever god you like. Imagine an afterlife.

It's November. Things will get rougher before they turn better. It's a long, cold winter in these latitudes. There is a drought of options this season. Leaves and songs and books and ideas will blow all around your cabin door. Reach out for them. All have potential. Some will take you where you may not have known you needed to go; a few will maybe save you.

Consulting no experts, informed by no authority, bereft of any respectable faith, Mr. Cooper blithely puts his little essays before the public, knowing that a few will wish to attempt to inform or correct him by writing He does not object to this, and may reply to some.

© 2007 The Wiscasset Newspaper

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