Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Motel Diablo

"I Don't Know That Guy"
Me, I'm happy-go-lucky
always ready to grin.
I ain't afraid of loving you
ain't fascinated with sin.
So who's this fellow in my shoes
making you cry?
I don't know that guy.

Who took my suitcase?
Who stole my guitar?
And where's my sense of humor?
What am I doin' in this bar?
This man who's been drinking,
and giving you the eye
I don't know that guy. Hey!

Greg Brown from Dream Café (1992)

Tiger Woods, Person of the Year
What makes the golfing superstar’s tale compelling, after all, is not that he’s another celebrity in trouble or another fallen athletic “role model” in a decade lousy with them. His scandal has nothing to tell us about race, and nothing new to say about hypocrisy. The conflict between Tiger’s picture-perfect family life and his marathon womanizing is the oldest of morality tales.
What’s striking instead is the exceptional, Enron-sized gap between this golfer’s public image as a paragon of businesslike discipline and focus and the maniacally reckless life we now know he led.
Published: December 19, 2009 in the New York Times

‘Daddy, I don’t want you to ever go to Las Vegas again.’
James McManus from Positively Fifth Street (2003)

Sex, inebriation, gambling, guns, fast cars, blowing shit up, sex, competition, big trucks, risk taking, pissing, sex, fighting, pornography, motorcycles, spitting, dirty jokes, adrenaline rushes, sex; a fascination with sin is the hallmark of a young man’s life. Living a life of maniacal recklessness is an ideal. Even men, like me, who were beloved by their mothers, did well in school, stayed out of jail, supported their families, held responsible jobs, and enjoyed the love of a good woman will, by the time they get old, have spent a fair amount of time checked into the Motel Diablo. Minimally, they will have spent a fair amount of time engaged in the fantasy of checking into The Motel Diablo.
I started thinking about this in a focused way following a conversation I had with one of my students, Christian Pidru. He is a young man I am very fond of. His life teeters on the edge of chaos. We were riding in my car, I think going to buy some art supplies for a picture he was painting of a crazed, ferocious monkey, when he said to me, “I wish I had a simpler life.” I asked, “Simpler in what way” and he listed troubles with the police, conflicts with his mother, and doing poorly in school. We were quiet for a while and then I said, “It is my experience that keeping life simple is something you have to work at every day. It is a bunch of little choices and it is hard to make those choices. There are a lot of temptations pulling us in the other direction.” This kid sometimes calls me abuelo, so I added, “Even grandfathers like me have to make those choices.” What I didn’t say at the time, but thought about later, was that those choices are really hard when you are young and get easier as you age.
In the 60s, 70s, 80s, when nurture vs. nature conversations came up, I took an extreme stance for self-determination. I bridled at the notion that I was not 100% in control of my own life. The idea that biology was destiny struck me as conservative and an abdication of responsibility. I might have been doing stupid things, making bad choices, but, damn it; they were my stupid things and my bad choices. Then I turned, 40, 50, and 60 and felt my biology change; shift downward into a calmer way of being in the world. This coincided with a lot of thinking about and reappraising of my life, so I guess I could claim that I got older and wiser, but my suspicion is that I just got older. I still think that we are responsible for everything we do, but with hindsight, I have empathy for the ways that being awash with testosterone from the ages of 12 to 50 complicates the picture.

Positively Fifth Street by James McManus is one of the best books I’ve read in the last ten years. It is ostensibly about murder and playing world championship poker in Las Vegas, but it is really about everything or at least that subset of everything that interests guys. He addresses the male fascination with sin by dividing himself as a character in the book into Good Jim and Bad Jim. Good Jim would never use his poker winnings to get a lap dance while his wife and kids waited for him at home. Bad Jim would hire two six foot strippers to rub themselves against him late into the night. McManus was 49 during the events he describes in Positively Fifth Street. I bet he would write a different book today.

The guest portrait: If I can get someone else to do my portrait for the week, I can substitute it for a self-portrait. This one is by Christian Pirdu.


  1. John,
    "empathy for the ways that being awash with testosterone from the ages of 12 to 50 complicates the picture..."

    School is such an artificial environment, and so often deadly for boys. "Boy in a box" I call it. The trouble starts well before the testosterone levels soar, so the "bad habits" are fully primed for the hormonal boost.

    It's so f***ing politically incorrect to be a boy, it makes me crazy. When are we going to wake up? And imagine the resources and gifts we are losing. They were our hunters, our warriors, our protectors, and now they're just our juvenile delinquents and sexual philanderers. So much testosterone, and no where good to go. A young male life that requires, (and all too often even offers) nearly no physical effort or challenge is a recipe for disaster.

    Thanks for your efforts through art to make it real for boys - and for girls too. - June

  2. June, Thanks for this comment. It really expands what I was thinking about when I wrote Motel Diablo in a very interesting way. J.

  3. john,

    in the poem below
    i have tried to describe that search
    you write about.....
    "a young man's quest for self/ trying to keep life simple/the pain that comes with learning to make wise choices."
    i agree with june's comments:
    "that being awash with testosterone
    only complicates the matter"

    and for the record???
    no one says it Better than Greg Brown !

    Winter’s Beguiling Light

    The succulent needs more light than I can give it
    The spider needs room to roam
    The ivy’s attached her hands to the door frame
    Upstairs my nephew is watching porn.

    The Christmas cactus droops with a fever
    The philodendron cries and moans
    The wedding plant is dying
    My nephew’s mind just groans.

    The plants all turn their faces eastward
    Towards the window’s light
    Magically shifting in their soil
    My nephew can not sleep at night.

    The outdoor plants are frozen
    The spikes’ green shoots long dead
    The hostas curl around themselves
    My nephew’s secrets stay unsaid.

    The trees shed their skins
    Falling faster than any rake can meet
    Outside my nephew howls in sorrow
    Leaves floating at his feet.

    This succulent needs more light than I can ever give it
    This spider needs room to roam
    With secrets and lies attached to his door frames
    My nephew won’t go home.

  4. Hello, this is Jordan Hadley Christain's friend at the phoenix academy ( the short kid with the glasses and the bob dylan book ).
    I like what you have to say about this subject. I agree that there are a lot of temptations and derailments that can occour in life and that there is a always a constant stuggle in keeping life simple and managable especially for people like me who live in the constant chaos of today's youth culture. It's true and I'm begining to realize it more and more every single day. overthinking things and taking on more than one can handle is a recipe for disaster. simple is best.