Tuesday, July 14, 2009


In my mid-20s I flirted with getting a giant tattoo -- a simple, if vaguely Gaelic, inscription of the number: "2026."

I had around that time been studying the life of Francis of Assisi. Born a well-to-do Italian preppy -- it is said his tiny feet sprung from the womb already clad in medieval Adidas -- decades later Francis spoke an ode to his faithful donkey and died a lice-infested beggar, October 3, 1226. His donkey is said to have wept.

Centuries later, after a life lived split dead-even between receipt of ridicule and reverence, Francis has now become the patron saint of this, patron saint of that. And of all these patron sainthoods, those that spoke most to me were his love for the environment -- he constantly spoke homage to sister sun, brother wolf -- and even more, his renouncement of all things Adidas, his betrothal to Lady Poverty, his sticky service to lepers, his indigent freedom to serve and love without kowtowing monthly to the Bank of America. In my mid-twenties I came to love the man.


After all, how could I openly express such admiration for a man who'd become -- no, seriously -- of one flesh with poverty, when I was shelling out countless grand a year at a beachside seminary in Vancouver, B.C. and downing overpriced pints on Tuesdays? Emulating Francis would have to wait.

But in the meantime, I thought: the tattoo.

2026, exactly 800 years from the death of Saint Radical Simplicity, I would organize a pilgrimage from Assisi to Rome, a symbolic message to established religion that their so-called church, in its comfort and riches, had give up any lingering claim to be a servant of the widow, the orphan, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned, the lame, the blind, when it first crawled from the catacombs and made the first stained glass.

In that prophetic year of 2026, these marchers -- swarms of us -- would already have followed St. Francis's lead, would have sold and cashed in everything we owned: i-Pods, Subarus, earrings and banjos, laptops and 501Ks. And there at the Vatican's gate we would purge our bloated bank accounts as if our pens were wild fireman's hoses across the very last checks ever written in our lives. In hindsight, I took for granted there'd be a mailbox, into which we'd hurl our life-abandoning last letters, addressed to charities and shelters all the world over, to homeless drunkards, hapless old ladies abandoned by their children, starving Sally Struthers villages.

And after that, with nary a word, we'd all go home to our respective countries, wander the streets, beg our suppers, love and be the poor.


I didn't get the tattoo.

Instead -- and I swear I don't regret this -- I got married. Got a baby (pending -- Baby Boy is weeks away). Got a little bungalow with matching mortgage. Got a job. Ever since, I've roamed those wide open spaces, that staggering chasm, between what I'd dreamed, a life of pure self-sacrificial love, and what I got: the American Dream.

Who knows what might have changed if I'd gotten that tattoo, that jagged patch of printed skin to shame me into following through with such ridiculous, preposterous beauty, such naively prophetic grit? Then again, who knows what a pompous prick I'd have become as just such a tattooed troubadour, singing subtle judgments to audiences less radical than I, while in turn I forfeited this true, humbled love I now enjoy (humbled, and truer for it) of wife and family and daily-compromised love for neighbor, or, more often, just dreams thereof, thus leaving me today unable to cast judgment on others' inaction because I'm be still so hopelessly lost in my own?

What might have been. Whatever. From now on this lick-and-stick blog post will serve as interim tattoo, goading and prodding an upped ante -- as talk of love and justice always does -- into the heightened stakes of ultimatum. Talk enough about justice and love, and the only options left you are to do nothing and show yourself a hypocrite or worse, or do too little, and join ranks with all the other broken saints.

Baby Boy, if you read this years or decades down the line, remind me I wrote it, will you? And if it's not yet 2026, should we make plans? You tell me.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

In a few months I'm sure I'll have more to say, little pea. I've got no doubt that then in fact I'll ramble on, giddy as a clown. I'll lose my inhibitions as soon as you, for your part, have shed the omniscience of the womb.

You'll be a baby, proper, then; your spit-up and cranky screaming, your prized gassy smiles, will assure me at last that you are like me: hope and sinew, flesh and bone. And then between farts and giggles (yours and mine) I'll tell you the things I've never found words to say - not to anyone - and you will look up and laugh and tug at my beard, or cry because perhaps for a minute I am holding you too tight.

I can't say those things to you now, Pea. Not yet. You're too big to me, too mighty, too intimate with Mystery. You're too pure, too God-sprung. It's intimidating, Pea. When I look at the galaxy glowing at your side, your traveling companion while you're busy sprouting toes, how can I not wonder how Fischer Price, much less your bumbling dad, will be able to compare?

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Ode to the guy in the Audi, picking his nose

To the man picking his nose today
headed westbound on Broadway, near Edgewood,
know this: I love you and will keep your secret,
O you demigod or angel sent
to share your passion,
your brokenness,
your unexpected joy.
As you passed I imagined you receiving, someday,
the welcome fit for such an emissary:
Horns honking, trumpets blaring,
kids collecting candy hurtled forth from your tailpipe
while you, pretending unawares,
mined yet soulfully upwards,
your index finger a concrete prayer
of the world's last repentant sinner,
scraping upwards for God.

Saturday, November 22, 2008


I read somewhere, years ago, that John Milton was a terror to live with when he went blind. Early in the morning, hours before dawn, he would sit up in bed, screaming "Milk me! ... I must be milked!" No matter the hour, Milton's entourage -- wife, servants, daughters -- scurried in with lamps and candles, bleary-eyed. Milton moaned, practically mooing. "Milk me!"

And so they would -- furiously scribbling down ten new lines of Paradise Regained, or some other such verse that had stormed John Milton's frontal lobe and bottlenecked there, throbbing.


Early this morning, hours before dawn, I stood dumbly in a pitch-dark kitchen, opting against the artificial light. As I stared out toward the back window, the fridge made a half-dozen lunges at the coast, and then was silent again.

Or maybe I mistook the sound. Maybe what I heard were REM cycles, murmurs from the fridge's own deep-set secret dreams. And not only dreams -- aspirations. Dreams of making gourmet ice. Cubing. Crushing. Sculpting.


I've heard that sound that Milton made. For three months, when I was 22, I worked as a dairy farmer in the Swiss Alps, perched thousands of meters up on Alp Inner Urden, ringed with flowers and snow. Every morning I'd wake before dawn, stuff some cheese and salami in my coat, and trudge out to herd forty big-horned cattle that had scattered all over the alp. When I came out too early, they all grumbled like teenagers and scarcely budged from their beds. But when I came too late, half of them had already herded themselves. They moaned with fertile fury at the milking station gate, their kuhglocken clanging.

Milk me!


I turn thirty in 22 days. It's a fact that means little to an ancient Alp, a puttering fridge, a dead genius. But for me, for more than half my life, "thirty" was the precipice I was loath to approach. How else could I see the big Three-Oh but as a personal apocalypse, certain as I was that I would die at 29?

And yet here I stand in spite of myself, seven years after leaving the alp: a cowbell clanging at the edge of an afterlife. I knew these last few weeks would come, but at 22 I never expected this: I'm calm. I'm not afraid. Not of death. Not even of adulthood.

In fact, I'm downright hopeful. This morning, beside the fridge, staring out our dark kitchen window, I saw broad stretches of sorrow and joy. Turning thirty, and forty, and sixty were no longer scarier than death. They're not death. They're afterlife. Gift. Full of milk and honey.

I'm buzzing, and so is the fridge. Someday I'll take it to see the ocean and the Ice Capades.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Merry Barackmas, one and all!

This morning I woke up giddy as a kid on skittles. Barackmastime at last!

My stomach buzzed; my feet twitched to skimper through the living room, zoom through the kitchen, and bunny-hop the three steps down into our den, where last night, I knew Barack and his elves had come at last to cram mountains of presents in under the Barackmastree.

"Jen!" I cried, "Wake up! It's Barackmas!" And her in her stockings and I in my cap, skimper and skurry we did -- out past the big batch of hot mulled wine; out through the festive kitchen air, already filled as it was to the cabinet-corners with scents of a great big plucked goose roasting in its juices, just-baked gingerbread-potus cookies awaiting zany decorations, and not a lump of coal in sight. Barackmastime!

And underneath the tree, good heavens! Such piles and bundles of wrapped and packaged untenable abstractions as ever a boy would aspire to see! Jen ripped into the first one: Health care for all! I tore into another big one -- a bicycle! Overjoyed, I rang its handlebars' horn, and lo! It announced the end to all wars! Except Afghanistan! I honked again, and rode the bike into the couch. Out of my way! I shouted.

Then both of us opened up at a third: a full box-set of cheering countries worldwide: Iraq, Kenya ... even the rare and collectable France!

Suddenly, Jen and I traded eyes, afraid for a moment to open any more. What if we played with all these toys, coveted and whined-for as they'd been for so long, and after all this begging and being (god help us) nice, they broke?

The moment was thankfully just that -- it passed almost before we knew it. With Bing Crosby crooning on the record player, we tore back in again. The day after would come, but for now -- Barackmastime!

Barackmastime at last!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Howard Zinn and the Poisonberry Bible

Or: What I Have Learned and Will Likely Forget from the First Three Chapters of A People's History of the United States.
Christopher Columbus was an asshole, but at least he was Spirit-led.

From Columbus's own account, one should assume that God has finally joined the Pharoah.

Upon first meeting the native Arawaks, Columbus journaled excitedly: "They would make fine servants ... With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want."

But if forced slavery was easy enough, forced alchemy was another matter. Generous as they were with their possessions, the Arawaks were obstinate when it came to sharing non-existant gold.

Columbus reasoned with them by chopping off their hands.

Still nothing. No straw. No bricks. Just mass suicides, and runaways in droves.

Trying another tack, Columbus made a market of the Arawaks themselves. In the name of Christ, Christoper Columbus packaged, boxed, wrapped and freighted 500 healthy Arawaks out across the open sea. Success at last: nearly three in five survived that first trip of many.

Columbus had finally heard the call of God: "Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold." And so he unwittingly earned his name: Christ-to-pher, merchant of little Christs.


A Pilgrim wrote of the Pequots they had set out that day to slaughter:

"The Indians sptying of us came running in multituteds along the water side, crying, 'What cheer, Englishmen, what cheer, what do you come for?' They not thinking we intended war, went on cheerfully..."


"Your Reverence writes me that you would like to know whether the Negroes who are sent to your parts have been legally captured. To this I reply that I think your Reverence should have no scruples on this point, because ... we have been here ourselves for forty years and there have been among us very learned Fathers ... never did they consider the trade as illicit."

Which makes me wonder: what "slave trade" are we complicit in today, that 200 years from now (or better, twenty) will make us look barbaric?
... "And Nathan did saye upon His Blogge, 'What is this Climat Chaynge, that i should so altyr the paterns of my life? Have I not putte in CFLs? What futuer tyrranie would requier more from its ancestrie than this? Have I not runn my mowth enough?'

And likewise did Nathan continue about Dayrfur, sex trayd, and povertie in the Global Southe..."


"Spreading the wealth around" has been fighting words for centuries. In the days of Bacon's rebellion, the phrase was "hopes of levelling." And even then, the Rich found ways to justify their backlash as a virtue, and to brand "the Crys of the poor and Impotent for want of Relief" as, in the words of McCain's advisor, "whining."


There was light.

Even then there were strikes. Protests. Revolts. Runaways. Bartoleme de las Casas. W.E.B. Du Bois. Pamphleteers. New York City church wardens. Whites that joined the Indians. Mentors in the cracks.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Psalm 6:6

Yet again this morning I woke up drenched and shivering, a pool of tears everywhere.

After days of this -- or more accurately, nights of this -- the floorboards have warped from the moisture, and a quarter-inch layer of salt is caked clear across our bedroom floor.

Bathsheba has been, by any estimation, gracious. So far she has not sent me out to sleep on the couch. Granted, that could very well be because we just bought the couch and love seat six months ago. They came as a set.

I'm amazed that my weeping doesn't keep Sheba up, but she seems generally unphased. Usually, when the wailing is at its worst and the tears really start gushing, she just gently rolls me over on my side so that I face my end of the bed. Below the mattress we've put down cookie sheets -- the kind with a good three-quarter inch lip -- to catch some of the overflow.

We're not really sure what else to do. It's not like snoring. You can't just use breathing strips or anything.

And we've tried everything else. One day, in an attempt to be more proactive about the whole situation, I cut down my fluid intake to virtually nothing all day, with the thought that maybe later that night I'd have less reserves for tears. It didn't work. At 2am I woke up drenched yet again, so thirsty I thought I would die.

I'm not sure what all the crying is about. I've never really been the crying type. And during the day, I don't feel that bad. A little sad, maybe, but I tend to just attribute that to overwork, or to those occasional awkward moments at the post office or during dinners with friends, which, afterward, I replay over and over in my mind, wondering if I should've done something differently, or should've stopped talking about myself, or should've resisted playing the harp like some attention craving six year-old. Sometimes -- and I haven't told anyone this -- I still feel awful about what I did to Goliath, nasty man that he was. His daughter was only six, and she saw the whole thing.

But that's the worst of it. Nothing serious. God, I feel like a basketcase.

And frankly, I feel kind of spoiled being so glum. I think: what right do I have be sad when so much of the world -- billions of people, maybe -- live in shit storms of violence, hunger and loneliness, while I take three squares a day for granted, have a loving wife and the statistical 2.3 dogs, a big backyard, a fairly stable kingdom? So what if I feel "ineffectual"?

Anyway, if you can keep a secret, I'll tell you one. I've got this theory. And I'm being serious here, so don't laugh.

The theory is this: perhaps it's not me crying at all. Perhaps it's the earth itself.

What I mean is, perhaps the whole world chooses us at random to be its eyes. Perhaps, then, I should see all this crying as an honor: even if my sole contribution is in channeling great geisers of tears, at least I still get to do something vital and alive, something that means something.

I know it sounds stupid, but just let me believe it for a while. And while I'm believing it, let me pray that whoever gets the honor next will be less tear duct, more vision.