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The Fire Next Time

The Fire Next Time

By James Baldwin

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Arts and Culture

The Monster

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Posted on Nov 1, 2011
Mr. Fish

By Mr. Fish

(Page 2)

That was the Kurt Vonnegut quote I opened with at the bookstore, offering it as an example of a simple statement of fact that, though it is neither joyous nor optimistic nor complimentary at all, makes us laugh. Why is that? Should not such an unflattering observation about our own intolerance of both homosexuality and artistic ambition shame us?

“Another example of a joke being funny simply because it surprises us with its bold, unapologetic adherence to truth,” I said to the crowd, which was made up mostly of African-American women older than 60, “is this: What’s the worst thing you can hear while you’re blowing Willie Nelson? I’m not Willie Nelson.” I then went on to say that while the Willie Nelson joke didn’t require much analysis to determine why it was true, the Vonnegut quote did. Why would a parent be upset about his or her child wanting to be an artist? After all, isn’t art—whether we’re talking about books or music or movies or painting or dance—precious to every single one of us? Is it not the source material we most revere when we’re hoping to unwind from a day spent enduring the soul-crushing shit storm that is normal life? Hasn’t John Coltrane pulled more desperate souls in from the window ledge than, say, the Ten Commandments or Newton’s law of universal gravitation?

Having known no other father, my stepfather was what I’d grown up believing patriarchy and, by default, leadership and absolute authority to be. Rather than earning the respect of my brothers and sister and me, my stepfather exacted affection as if it were some sort of tax levied against us in revenge for his failure to enter adulthood as something other than a hopelessly pissed-off, unskilled teenager whose only concept of maturity was whatever jury-rigged masculinity he hoped to cull together from mixing auto mechanics with alcoholism. As a result, we all did what the Libyans might have done 35 years later, which was to develop a deep disdain for any fairy tale that held within it a king or an emperor or a God whose power had been vested by fiat and not hard-won through either humor or compassion or ballot. 

Up until that Thanksgiving in 1976, my stepfather seemed like the real deal to me, no less a convincing example of genuine villainy than a recurring nightmare is for anybody desperate to wake from a dream gone haywire. Once, while he was beating me in a vacant lot with a wooden stake used to mark property, I hollered for my mother and wondered why she never came to my rescue, leaving me to puke alone in the weeds on my hands and knees. Then, perhaps a week later, while we swerved wildly down the middle of the highway in a green Nova held together by rusty wire hangers and duct tape, my stepfather deliberately running cars off the road and throwing empty beer cans out the driver’s side window, I sat white-knuckled in the backseat with my brothers and sister and watched our commander in chief grab my mother roughly by the upper arm and pull her close. I remember imagining that I could hear her anguished telepathy hollering for somebody to rescue her, realizing all of a sudden that perhaps the reason why she hadn’t saved me earlier in the week was because neither one of us had a safe location from which to pull the other. 

Two muffins were baking in an oven. One muffin turns to the other and says, “Holy shit, it’s hot in here!” The other muffin says, “Holy shit … a talking muffin!”

Q: Hey Dave, why are you wearing only one sock?
A: I needed to blow my nose in the middle of the night and the other sock was the only thing I could reach.

Looking at the vulnerable patch of pale hairless skin stretched shiny over my stepfather’s exposed ankle, I laughed and at the same time pitied him for needing to work so hard to reinterpret the belittling laughter from everybody in the room as benign fondness.  Decades later I would hear that Moammar Gadhafi’s last words were, “Do you know right from wrong?” and I’d wonder what our collective eye rolling was betraying about our inability to answer the question.


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EmileZ's avatar

By EmileZ, November 3, 2011 at 10:25 pm Link to this comment

The jury seems to be in Mr. Fish…

You are either a monster or some sort of tragic hero.

I thought it was a pretty good column and I liked the jokes.

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By USS Minnow, November 3, 2011 at 12:36 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Keep re-visioning all people in the world restored to innocence, freedom, and robust health.  Everyone just popping up like magic and saying “Everything’s great!  Have an orange!”  It works for me.

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By Jane, November 3, 2011 at 4:20 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Insightful.  But it is tragic when children have to suffer through experiences like Mr. Fish did.  Childhood cruelty stays with us forever; if we get help and investigate it, we may not always allow it to affect our own behaviors—but the remembrance, the knowledge of these monsters will never be forgotten.

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By ardee, November 2, 2011 at 6:02 am Link to this comment

“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.
When you look long into the abyss the abyss also looks into you.”  Frederich Nietzche

It takes much courage to do as Mr. Fish has done here and I applaud him for doing so.

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kerryrose's avatar

By kerryrose, November 2, 2011 at 1:32 am Link to this comment

I also learned disrespect for authority as a child.  Experiencing an authority figure as a villian when you are a child, can wise you up for a lifetime of un-hero worship because the reality is (and you learned it at a tender age)... that people basically suck.

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By rumblingspire, November 1, 2011 at 8:58 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

goodness! what a horror filled image.  in the back seat of a car driven by a monster.

i recently watched the old TV show from the BBC called Survivors.  1970s.  in one memorable episode a priest tells his accidental executioner that the one true miracle is to show kindness when angry.

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mrfreeze's avatar

By mrfreeze, November 1, 2011 at 6:52 pm Link to this comment

What an intense remembrance. I once heard a psychologist who studies sociopathic behaviour say that if you want to truly see the darkness of the human spirit, just gaze into a mirror…..take a good hard look…...

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By John Poole, November 1, 2011 at 6:49 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Seeking to watch video of Qaddafi’s last few minutes as well as other gruesome
footage available of other ghastly events seems very unhealthy- sort of a sado
masochistic voyeurism in my opinion.  Is Mr. Fish a guy who would stop and get
out of his car to study the tragic carnage aftermath of a fatal auto accident?  Why
the interest in watching gruesome video Mr. Fish? None of my family or friends
checks out death and mayhem on the internet. We have no need for the thought
alone is saddening and our imaginations have already filled us in.

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By gerard, November 1, 2011 at 5:15 pm Link to this comment

Profoundly agonizing.

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