Let your life be a counterfriction to stop the machine.
—Henry David Thoreau
The editor, known recusant of Concord, Massachusetts, has been battling with town organizations for over a decade (e.g., Concord Poetry Center, Concord Chamber of Commerce, Concord Cultural Council, Concord Festival of Authors, Walden Pond State Reservation, and Emerson Umbrella for the Arts). Transcendental Trinkets is a 150-page ongoing, unpublished manuscript, constituting highly critical open letters to Henry David Thoreau, American Dissident broadsides, poems, journal notes, essays, and satirical cartoons and watercolors. It bears testimony to the fact that purposeful conflict with power can indeed serve as a great source for creativity. Sadly, however, the bulk of the state's (and likely the nation's) creative-writing professors refuse to even expose their students to it as a possibility. In fact, I've only come across one professor in the entire state who willingly does, Dan Sklar (Endicott College), who has been inviting me to his classes each semester now for the past three years. How not to commend him for his unusual openness.
As for the watercolors, a juried exhibit was held at the Concord Free Public Library Art Gallery in August 2008 and netted the editor front-page coverage in The Concord Journal (see Interviews). One of the library curators, whom I did not know, wrote an email regarding that exhibit:
The only thing I know is that I have never seen anything like your work in the Gallery. You don't soothe, you awaken.
About a decade ago, I was arrested and incarcerated for a day in a Concord jail cell as a direct result of a non-violent dispute with a Walden Pond State Reservation ranger. On several other occasions, I was threatened with arrest for protesting the lack of free speech at Walden. For more information on those occurrences, see Walden Pond. Finally, I couldn't interest the Thoreau Institute in this manuscript. The Institute won't even permit me to place free-speech flyers in its kiosk. Its curators (past and present) refuse to even respond to my letters. Curator Jeff Cramer figures as a Chac Mool in the watercolor below. The Institute does publish books and not necessarily of the scholarly variety. What really irritates me is this new generation of comfortable censors, entirely indifferent to the principles of democracy. The following are excerpts.
The brown elm, most tenuous of leaves here
in the winter time,
trembled slightly eastwards in the breeze,
appearing as giant scarecrow conglomerations
of apathy and death.
Still, the pine green was most prevalent round
the horizons of the famous pond.
A balmy 60 degrees blew straight across it
Only a small portion of the water by the shore
was frozen over; driftwood bobbed close to me.
A lone boatman rowed a pathway through the
ice sheet until open water.
In the distance, I perceived my friend Jeanne
struggling along the slippery pathway.
Youth vociferated, though only for a moment,
while fishermen here and there remained silent.
The squawk of a lone crow resounded suddenly,
while I stood reading an official warning:
Attention park visitors, in recent months we have
received reports of an individual exposing himself
to park patrons. If you encounter this person
while at Walden pond, please do not confront him…
Open Letter to Henry David Thoreau #15
Dear Henry: The Town of Concord has become as bourgeois as it gets and not simply regarding wealth accumulation, but especially with regards both sterility in the absence of dissidence and pomposity in the boasting of distant history, including yours. Here today, the nation is in a shambles; democracy is in a shambles! But the Concord Cultural Council adopted a regulation prohibiting any proposal of a “political nature”* apt to actually question and challenge the very status quo that has been crippling the nation on both local and national levels. Imagine the pert pouting pusses of co-chairs Kathleen Kennedy and Elizabeth Harvey if you’d suddenly materialized to present them with a grant proposal to disseminate the ideas you expressed in “Civil Disobedience” and “Life without Principle”! The nation is in a shambles; democracy is in a shambles! But the Concord Chamber of Commerce won’t let you know about that in its Visitors Center, unless you step into the public latrine. “You can hang your stuff in the bathroom,” suggested Town Manager Chris Whalen as a solution to my complaint that it refused to permit me equal opportunity to post and stock flyers.
“The Town owns the bathrooms, not the Chamber of Commerce.” As for the Concord Poetry Center and Friends of the Concord Free Public Library, they only invite writers with bourgeois tastes and aesthetics to read to the “good society” that helped beat up the nation which, as mentioned, is in a shambles. As for the Walden Poetry Series, its “Poetry for the Spring Equinox to celebrate the beauty of the natural world” is in your tradition, not of dissidence, of course, but rather of botany. The only way “good society” and poet sycophants can deal with you is in that castrated form. Once you’d said quite perspicaciously: “They want all of a man but his truth and independence and manhood.” Perhaps host David Bishop might spark invited poet David R. Surette’s reading by having your local impersonator do pirouettes in a green tutu. Thanks indeed to the flaccid poets of the day, Henry, you’ve become as safe as it gets—mere fodder for “good society”! “Let your life be a counterfriction to stop the machine” was your modus operandi, but certainly not that of local and national poetasters! Imagine if the members of the society and institute named after you actually heeded those words! Imagine if the teachers at the school named after you actually taught the children to cherish them! And imagine if the Corporate Outings, named after you held at the club named after you, actually taught the attending corporateers to live by them! Sadly, today, those words are simply ignored. Let your life be an unquestioning and unchallenging part of the machine is a much more convenient modus operandi for them. In other words, if that machine pays, Henry, then keep your mouth tightly sealed. “I ask only that one fourth part of my honest thoughts be spoken aloud,” you’d written. Well, you won’t even get one fiftieth here in Concord, for you’ve been co-opted by the very “good society” you once described so well: “It is very evident what mean and sneaking lives many of you live… lying, flattering, contracting yourselves into a nutshell of civility or dilating into an atmosphere of thin and vaporous generosity.” Well, I shall be distributing copies of this letter to share our thoughts with those who surely would rather we not share them, for potentially perturbing to the bliss of their Spring Equinox. Best to you, Henry.
*In October, 2009, the CCC removed its stipulation that: “Programs in music, dance, visual arts, poetry, literature, drama, the humanities and scientific interpretation for all age groups will be considered, but not those of a political nature.” Evidently, I'd provoked that removal. Of course, those who enacted the provision are still, however, firmly entrenched in their Council seats, so will likely continue to prohibit anything they perceive to be of a “political nature” from equal-funding opportunity and simply reject it for other reasons.
February 24, 2000
Walden today for a change. Two guys out in the middle of the lake on chairs ice fishing. The signs are up. UNSAFE ICE/ NO GAS AUGERS. The cap is a reflection of water, for all the snow of yesterday has melted, and two brave souls. The sun is out. It’s about 45. A few mounds of snow on the ice… dead snowmen tumbled over. The path is swampy. I have my rubber boots on, so no matter. Mushy. Squish, squish is the sound today. Signs all over the place. ICE UNSAFE. Vertigo still in my head. Jeanne suggests a little antibiotic diet this weekend. Evidently, I have caught something.
I am alone here today. No other cars in the lot but mine. Who knows how many times I’ve rounded this pond. The papers this morning were loaded with a harvest of stuff to be cartooned and lampooned and decried. Santana and JFK. Ruben Blades declaring he’d rather attend the Grammys instead of Clinton’s King Carlos dinner.
The sun is bright now and the fishermen have scattered off the ice. Who can blame them? I too shall scatter off when cometh the bayonets. Santana should have spoken about the crap in Mexico, the massacres and drugs and America’s long shadow. He should have asked what the audience of millionaire actors and musicians were doing about it? What were the messages in their nonsense songs and films, if any at all?
Dead snowmen on the lake… and the familiar noxious odor of exhaust from speeding locomotive. A slush of ice upon the path. Rivulets. Spring is near. Hark! Oye como va? Hey how you doin’ man? That’s the extent of coolness… the buffer. My recent life has been a series of maneuvers and attempts at unraveling the truth, the substance of my country tis of thee. That’s what my life has become… unraveling the mysteries, the shroud upon America.
Broadside Rejected by Walden Pond State Reservation on the Advice of State Legal Counsel
Testing the Waters of Democracy Today in Concord… and at Walden Pond
Question: Does a citizen have the right to post criticism of a public organization on public grounds?
Answer: Legally, yes. At Walden Pond, however, definitely NOT!
“Since the Supreme Court’s decision in Hague v. Committee for Industrial Organization (1939), it has been settled in the law that public parks—since they are held in trust for the public and have traditionally been used for assembly, communication, and public discussion—are “traditional” public forums. […] Once a place has been designated a public forum, the government’s power to limit speech there is extremely narrow. Viewpoint discrimination is never permissible. Content discrimination (discrimination based on the subject matter of the speech, whatever the point of view taken on it) is acceptable only if the government can show the following:
1) There is a compelling state interest for the exclusion.
2) The regulation making the exclusion is narrowly drawn to achieve that state interest
3) The regulation leaves open ample alternative channels for the communication.
Speech has been broadly defined as an expression that includes, but is not limited to, what you wear, read, say, paint, perform, believe, protest, or even silently resist. “Speech activities” include leafleting, picketing, symbolic acts, wearing armbands, demonstrations, speeches, forums, concerts, motion pictures, stage performances, remaining silent, and so on." (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education)
Originally this broadside was written for and sent to park authorities in response to a request for a sample brochure of what I desired to stock by the info kiosk near Thoreau’s replica shack. “I am sorry for the delay in getting back to you about your request to leave your broadside in the brochure box,” wrote supervisor Denise Morrissey. “I ran it by my ‘bosses’ at the Regional level and to our legal counsel in Boston. Basically, the issue is one of space and fairness to all individuals and organizations that might want to do the same.” Space? The park is immense! And what about Free Speech and its legality?
On the Dissident Side
Toreau’s sense of ecology is stressed at Walden Pond State Reservation, as opposed to his sense of dissidence. For the socio-political status quo, ecology is far safer than dissidence, though evidently ecology too can be dissident in character. “Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty,” he wrote. “The obedient must be slaves.” Now, what if those words were plastered on the front of the Thoreau replica shack in large letters? The words, if heeded, could be potentially damaging to any hierarchical organization, including Walden Pond State Reservation. Contrary to most citizens of his time and ours, Thoreau was eager to express the truth as he saw it. “Such dangerous frankness was in his dealing that his admirers, called him ‘that terrible Thoreau,’” wrote friend Emerson. In America today, “frankness” is still “dangerous.” Indeed, to be “successful,” one must avoid “frankness” at all costs. Thoreau’s definition of “success” was, of course, quite different from that held by the general citizen of his day… and ours, though it clearly favored democracy, while disfavoring all things working against democracy. The “machine” that Thoreau wanted stopped was the money machine for its stifling affect upon free speech and vigorous debate, cornerstones of democracy, and its demand for rampant self-censorship.
As a direct result of the intrinsic corruption of that “machine,” in particular, at Fitchburg State College, and the refusal of the local press to publish anything with its regard, The American Dissident was founded in 1998 in Concord. That corruption essentially killed my career as professor, while unintentionally awakened another one as dissident. “Most who enter on any profession are doomed men,” wrote Thoreau. “The world might as well sing a dirge over them forthwith.” Thus, the dissident of Walden became an inspiration. Indeed, I became fascinated by the often egregious discordance existing between Concord’s brandishing of Thoreau as a native son and its seeming blatant disregard for what he really stood for. Thoreau, the tourist attraction, was of course far more valuable to the “machine” (e.g., Chamber of Commerce) than Thoreau, the dissident. In fact, the perversion of Thoreau as an icon reaches, at times, amazing extremes in Concord, as noted in the photo below. In times of Orwellian doublespeak, anything is possible. “A man will have to add a clause to his will, ‘No statue to be made for me,’” stated Thoreau. “It is very offensive to me to see the dying stiffen into statues at this rate.” Why the bronze statue at Walden?
The American Dissident seeks to publish writing that questions and challenges, as well as breaches the wall of convenient self-censorship. We, the people, need to get out there and sense democracy or rather the lack of it, and muster the courage to perform experiments in free speech. On cold days, we must not only test the waters of Walden Pond, but also those of democracy. “The dull and blundering behavior of clowns will as surely polish the writer at last as the criticism of men of thought,” wrote Thoreau. Over the years, how those “clowns” have polished me! On 9/1/1999, for example, I was arrested and incarcerated for a day in Concord by Officer Crosby for criticizing the State in a non-violent dispute with a Walden Pond park ranger. Despite the State prosecutor’s fervent desire to prosecute, Judge Sanders gave me the choice of dismissal or a jury trial, discouraging the latter however with an arrogant “Given the police report, I don’t think you stand a chance. It would be a crapshoot.” Yet that report only contained subjective fluff, noting witnesses, none of whom showed up. And the judge failed to evoke Commonwealth v. Jarrett (1977): “mere making of statements or expression of views or opinions, no matter how unpopular, or views with which persons present do not agree is not punishable as disturbance of the peace.” It still angers me today that Crosby had my car impounded as punishment ex jura. On 9/8/2000, a state trooper on horseback literally pushed me off park grounds with his horse because I’d asked the park ranger of the previous incident why he detested the First Amendment. The next day I returned with a simple sign: “NO FREE SPEECH AT WALDEN POND!” Silently, I stood by a tree near the park entrance. Soon, several state and town police cars arrived to tell me to move or be arrested. Dismayed, I left. Major Daniel E. Jamroz responded six months later to my official complaint: “As the Commanding Officer of Tactical Operations, the Mounted Section falls under my command. I have been provided with the copy of the investigation that was conducted by Captain Robert C. Laprel of my staff. I have found that this complaint that you made against officers assigned to the Mounted Sections for incidents that occurred on Sept. 8 and 9, 2000 at Walden Pond Park are Not Sustained.” Surprise? Not until this October did I return to Walden, though I still persisted as a “counterfriction to stop the machine.” To my surprise, Thoreau Society permitted me to stock The American Dissident at its Shop at Walden Pond, despite past refusal. But park authorities still refuse to allow me to place this broadside in the park’s brochure box. Other doors remain firmly closed. The Concord Chamber of Commerce refuses to permit the journal in its Visitor’s Center, the Concord Poetry Center refuses to invite me to speak on protest and poetry, and the Concord Cultural Council refuses to accord me a grant. “America is said to be the arena on which the battle of freedom is to be fought; but surely it cannot be freedom in a merely political sense that is meant,” wrote Thoreau. “Even if we grant that the American has freed himself from a political tyrant, he is still the slave of an economical and moral tyrant.”
Where the writing of wisdom in this house,
where Emerson once dwelled?
The furniture of old remains, though
the descendants now possess the deed.
Might this be the final door upon the tomb,
shutting over and again with each new tour
and monotone elucidation?
And this his study, and that the photo
by the famous photographer, and this
the painting of the famous admirer,
and that the dollhouse of the daughter
and this the wooden horse called Diamond.
In fame, the name was all ye needed know,
so hark the genealogical soliloquy, gaze
upon the old mahogany bed, touch
the wilted original wallpaper, smell the odor
of yesteryear, and admire—yes, admire—
the shelved books no longer read.
This the shroud smothering the wisdom of
“Self Reliance”—not a word of it uttered
with each new admission ticket purchased.
March 8, 2000
Where is your mind, soul man? Can’t quite find it this morning walking the walk, sun heating my pate. It is a warm day, well, 50s, birds tweeting, and I looking for thoughts that I don’t have. I cross the street to avoid the aggression of a pedestrian’s dog. Is that not the aggression by proxy of the pedestrian? I find myself covering my mouth with my sweatshirt sleeve when the passage of large trucks for such passage seems to suck the very atmosphere out of my surroundings, out of my being already diminished from virus or tumor.
It is man’s need to frolic alone in thicket swamps in and around the cattails to feel human and alive and in tune. Life abounds today but not from the humans. We are part of the wallpaper, always present, summer winter or fall. Today other creatures take prominence and even the hoot of a lone owl. It is I suppose a glorious morning. We even fear the woods today for the ticks, lime disease and hopes of immortality. The lineage is there. The lineage of cheat, the lineage of child molesters, the lineage of butcher leaders, and gratefully the lineage of solitary souls, chroniclers of it all. To prod the gray matter.
J’ai mal aux méninges. M’en fous de ta propriété de marde… et ton parfum puant.. ton mariage… ton épouse et toute ta connerie. M’en fous. Les âmes de maison sortent leurs âmes et corps itou. L’agrafeuse d’un travailleur perce mon oreille… ou du moins le son. Okay, English mode. Prod in that mode. I get lost in my French thoughts. Can’t use those thoughts…not here. Je prendrai plutôt la beauté de vos jardins. Plutôt ça que vos hanches engourdies. Une chaleur tout à fait agréable. Bienvenu au printemps ! Time to change coats. Mother and father, you went as far as you could. And now I go as far as I can.
On Harrington Avenue, the neighbor woman at the tiny house with the roof high cactus is raking. She has a nice garden already. Hers is the smallest house upon the avenue. “Boy that’s a nice garden you have there,” I said. “The best in the neighborhood.” She stopped to talk, which was not what I had in mind, so I had to stop. “I can’t really do much,” she said. “I had a liver transplant four years ago.” “Wow,” I say, “that’s the toughest of all the transplants.” “I planted over 400 bulbs, tulips and crocuses. I see you go by all the time.” “Yeah I have a heart thing,” I said. “Oh you’re one of those,” she said, and I moved on. The Doc had told me to eat beans, and I felt down today. Got to shed weight, shed the pounds. Walking 45 minutes isn’t enough, he said. No chocolates. Test after test.
Open Letter to Henry David Thoreau #10
The Concord Museum, Shop at Walden & What Would You Do?
Dear Henry: The Concord Museum, which houses some of your old "stuff," contains a shop. Several months ago I'd left a note there, requesting its manager, David Hessel, stock several copies of The American Dissident, a Concord-based literary journal created as, in your words, "a counterfriction to stop the machine." Well, I've already mentioned the journal to you. Anyhow, the manager never responded, so I drove back down to the shop the other day.
"I'm just doing a survey of what you carry here," I said to the clerk behind the cash register eyeballing me. "Oh, we try to keep it on a higher plain," she responded. "That's evidently a subjective remark," I said. "I guess maybe it is," she agreed, chuckling. Well, she didn't want me to quote her, but what she said was true. "Higher plain" equaled "good taste" and "good taste," Henry, seemed to be the rule of the day. Anything else was generally rejected, omitted, censored, or simply scorned. As you might have guessed, The American Dissident was not what the holders of "good taste" considered to constitute "good taste." Upon inspection, I concluded pertinence to Concord was oddly not a requisite: Wooden Boat, The Parting Glass: A Toast to the Traditional Pubs of Ireland, Interior Photography, and Antiques Magazine were on the shelf. The American Dissident is a small journal, Henry, and would take up only 1/4th the space accorded to Real Vermont Maple Syrup, 1/8th accorded to the Men's Minuteman Dress Ties, 178th accorded to the Dragonfly Craft earrings and pins rack, and only 1/25th accorded to those tee-shirts with your photo on them.
Later, I drove over to Walden Pond, now known as Walden Pond State Reservation which, by the way, is not run by American Indians, but rather by park rangers who, oddly, dislike dissidents. It was the day after Labor Day, so I figured I'd be able to park for free, as in previous years. Unfortunately, it now costs $5 even during off season. Being unemployed, I decided to skip the five bucks, as well as the swim I'd intended taking. Instead, I parked next to Shop at Walden, right next to the Massachusetts State Police Mounted Unit. Several years ago, as you might recall, I told you how a mounted cop pushed me out of the park with his horse's snout because I was protesting park ranger intolerance to free speech. Anyhow, I wanted to see what the boutique was selling, besides the books about you and Emerson. By the way, the shop is leased and the boutique managed by the Thoreau Society. Henry, you've spawned a cottage industry of tee shirts, sweatshirts, ties, coffee mugs, pencils, pens, greeting cards, walking sticks, bumper stickers, hoola hoops, book markers, books, scholars, and all kinds of transcendental trinkets, including tie clips and earrings. The favored trinket of the Thoreau Society is the ecologically colored blue-green "Simplify, Simplify" rubber wristband costing only $2. Some "good taste," eh, Henry? Interestingly, on one of the tee-shirts is the question: "What Would Thoreau Do?" Oddly, the Thoreau Society doesn't seem to know what the hell you'd do. But I know. The first thing you'd do is burn down Shop at Walden Pond, tar and feather members of that society, knock down your bronze statue, blow up the Thoreau Institute, free the corralled cop horses, and, well, spend another night or two in jail. Good "talking" to you, Henry.
March 9, 2000
So here I am at Walden to get rid of the pounds. I’ve got to get a job! I need health insurance! It’s sunny today, 60s. Walden is noise once again, kids hollering at the beach, fishermen yakking with stentorian voices. The year gone, already down the drain. “It’s 34 in the water,” said an old guy. “Painful.” 125 over 80, so my blood pressure’s good. The EKG was excellent, said the doctor. But my cholesterol has skyrocketed to 280. “Eat beans.” $500 later. “Eat beans,” he said. “Flageolets, isn’t that what the French call them?” Navy beans, soy beans, chickpeas, limas, lentils. The sun is out. The top of my head is aflame. Fiber. “There’s a special fiber in beans,” he said. Wants me to see an optician, then a neurologist. Fuck that. And of course he wants me back again.
A youth, cellphone glued, yakking loudmouth upon the path. Walden needs SILENCE signs instead of all the STAY ON THE PATH signs. “YEAH, THAT’S PERFECT!” some broad hollers through my ears to another one. Slight dizziness, something slightly out of whack, out of kilter in the body/mind, also a slight re-hankering to get the hell out of the state. Kayaking?
The southern edge of this pond is still frozen… liquidity, slushy topping. What if I just walked all day? All day long around this pond, round and round and round? Why not? We are all so strange to each other in our differences. The Doctor and I… two completely different minds, his in trumping up business and Sunday church services; mine, well, mine is just elsewhere.
Fishermen with heavy Boston accents in their 30s, unemployed, I suppose. There’s a tall gawky female semi-naked doing Buddha stretches on the beach. “IF YOU WANT TO GET CHEAP TICKETS YOU BETTER BE ON LINE BY 8,” says a 20-year old woman with a flop hat walking past me. “HOWEVER, IT MAY HAVE INFLUENCED THE CREDIBILITY OF THOSE PERCEPTIONS,” bellows another one. “SPEAK HUMAN, NOT MACHINE!” I holler. These people just don’t give a damn that their bellowing conversations might interrupt the thoughts of lone promenaders.
Pilgrim of Walden
We were many in the summer, but very, very few in the winter.
In fact, I was quite alone last Friday during that tempest, huffing and puffing
in five inches of snow and sleet, old feet making the first and last prints of the day.
The heavens had become one low cloud mass covering the pond, that frozen slab
misting in fixed yawn and thick lips of ice.
The trees drooped from the heaviness of new crystalline sleeves, but that tempest
had given way to balmy breezes today, and alas, a few more souls.
“Can you still walk the path?” asked a lone woman snapping photos.
“Friday,” I replied, “was rough, but I did it.”
She asked again, “but do the people still walk the paths in the winter?”
“Hell, I’m people,” I said, quickly marching away into the slush, melt and crackle,
the sky dark gray, though quite blue in the horizon afar.
What a fine solid sheet of blankness before me: the pond.
The ominous approach of evening and crisp clarity of winter brings the joy of solitude,
until a fellow crunch, crunching toward me stops, points to his wrist,
seems like he wants to chat and asks, “can I trouble you for the time, please?”
But I keep moving—nothing can stop my momentum—, turn around while still advancing
and reply, “must be about 4:30. I don’t carry watches anymore.”
The darkening sky releases drizzle–oh, I don’t care–shoeshine still upon my boots.
Then slowing down, I cast a glance behind me; you can never be sure of safety.
Further down the path, a man about my age stops to discuss the state of the way,
both of us promptly concluding icy times beyond.
He says, “it was a nice day. I just had to get out and do something.”
How many of us, I wonder, might be lying on sofas in sheer reverie, day after day?
I pass one of the newer landmarks, a tree out in the pond standing tall
though with two two-by-fours wired to it,
leaving me perplexed always, pondering the state of the State of Massachusetts.
On the north side, the ice becomes thicker and slicker, the fence on either side of the path,
at least now serving a purpose.
I grab hold with each hand and slide my feet like skis when suddenly,
I am lying flat upon my belly slowly gliding into the pond on a sheet of awfully slick ice.
After trying in vain to stop my flow, I manage to punch fingers into the edge
where still a little snow
and pull myself to the top of the embankment.
Feeling ridiculously proud, I gaze out like a Viking at the last rays of sun glistening...