Jan/Feb 2004 Salon


by Stanley Jenkins

We are that pair of Dioscuri, one of whom is mortal and the other immortal, and who, though always together, can never be made completely one. The transformation processes strive to approximate them to one another, but our consciousness is aware of resistances, because the other person seems strange and uncanny, and because we cannot get accustomed to the idea that we are not absolute master in our own house. We should prefer to be always "I" and nothing else. But we are confronted with that inner friend or foe, and whether he is our friend or our foe depends on ourselves (Carl Jung, "Concerning Rebirth," 1950).

What debt do we owe the ancestors? I suppose—in the end—that’s the question we’ve been asking. Isn’t it?

Look at it this way. We’ve been in love with America for a long time. You and I. And America is the name we have given to the license to say "fuck you" to the past.

And let’s be honest. It feels good. To say "fuck you" to the past. Doesn’t it?

But at what price?


Two lions. One is old. One is young.

Young Lion: You ask too much.
Old Lion: I ask only what is required.
Young Lion: It’s all I’ve got.
Old Lion: It starts to mean more...
Young Lion: It means a lot now.
Old Lion: What you’ve got. It means more when it’s slipping away.
Young Lion: You ask too much.
Old Lion: I’m not asking.

What do we owe the ancestors? With their different rules. With their strategies and out-of-date maps. What is the price of admission? What must be withheld?

There is something almost unbearable about being here without precedents.


Lately I’ve been seeing ghosts. Like my grandfathers. I’ve been seeing both of my dead grandfathers. They come into my room and continue to rot. Both of them. One suffocated to death. Emphysema. The other got Pneumonia. But that was just an excuse. He’d left a long time ago. Alztheimers.

My ghostly grandfathers. The first gurgles. The second pins me with furiously absent stares. He is making his stand. I watch him lose the fight. Again. He is left with anger and without the memory of why. My grandfathers. They are so dead. What do they want?


But we know what they want. Don’t we? You and I. The question is do we have what it takes. Or the will?


Two Lions. One young. One old.

Young Lion: Yeah, and you know what? It sure does feel good to say "fuck you" to the past. What is the past? I mean, really? The past is the place where the underdog never wins and Charlie Chaplin is always crushed like a violet on a hill marked for strip mining. The past is the place where the bullets always pierce the dangling and impenetrable magic Ghost Shirts of the so sad, so sad, so sad and not immortal Sioux Ghost Dancers. The past is the place where Lucy always pulls the damn football away—oh at the very last minute!—and Charlie Brown? Well, he comes into his own like water flowing downhill. The past is a "fuck you", in and of itself.

I do not deny that there is something noble in the human—all too human—need to just say "no".

No. I do not.

Old Lion: Yes. I know. But do you remember what’s left behind in this, your story of the past? Do you remember? You and I. There is always Joshua Tree. The tortured desert. (It doesn’t go away.) California dreaming. (Such exertion and distortion in the name of just being here. Here!)


Joshua Tree National Park is immense, nearly 800,000 acres, and infinitely variable. It can seem unwelcoming, even brutal during the heat of summer when, in fact, it is delicate and extremely fragile. This is a land shaped by strong winds, sudden torrents of rain, and climactic extremes. Rainfall is sparse and unpredictable. Streambeds are usually dry and waterholes are few. Viewed in summer, this land may appear defeated and dead, but within this parched environment are intricate living systems waiting for the opportune moment to reproduce (http://www.nps.gov/jotr/desert/desert.html).


Do you remember the purity of Joshua Tree’s "fuck you"? In this land that does not love life. Life holding its own. Can you calculate the cost? The innocence of the cancer cell. The due dilligence of the sperm?


You can’t hide much longer, my young friend. You’re going to be necessary.


We know what they want, my young friend. Don’t we? You and me. The ancestors. They want to keep living. To just keep living. And you and I—you old son of a bitch—we’re still looking for the door in.

Into our own America.


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