Saturday, November 22, 2008

29

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.

Thursday, October 23, 2008


When I think of the Spirit hovering over the deep, back in those Early Days, I can't help but look back on my heritage as even then it squirmed in the stardust. With nostalgia etched deep in my DNA, I imagine reeling there with my great-great-grandprotozoa, in Eden's lost volcanic vents, where microscopic Adams and Eves, their greedy celia flailing, lurch toward forbidden protofruit and learn to blame each other. I picture myself as one of them, just moments before they realize their nakedness and, in shame, first cover themselves.

I want to tell them not to be ashamed. I want to tell them many things. But alas, they are protozoa, and I am late for work.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

ode to all forgotten

I can't remember you.
I can only remember how you felt, cool on my skin,
The way you waved in the night,
like nothing blown through wintering pines.
I can't remember you,
You many lost hours
Which I, as a child,
Spent doing
I don't remember what.
Forgive me, lost hours, when I cannot resist
the urge to envision
trenches dug in sandboxes
which the Good Lord saw fit to stricken
from existence before they began.
Forgive me when I remember
the glistening gray arch of a land-drowning whale,
her silence when I touched her, dying
on a beach that never was.

After so many promises,
Forgive me
for never coming back,
For remembering her,
And forgetting all of you.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Joyride


I've been scarce lately. Sorry about that.

Last week it was due to a bookish streak. Every free hour I found I spent in a bum-rush on ecotheology: the study of the poor world, the world's poor, and the story of a mysterious God with strangely hidden loyalties to both. Feeling euphoric -- but recognizing my own flaky history of bold, forgotten promises -- I devoted my life to yet another One Big Cause. All in books, of course. All inhale, no exhale. A voracious consumer of others' anti-consumerist passions.

Then at the end of last week, it was time for a world-shift. Beyond this great, comforting refuge of books, Ms. V got her head stomped in and the dark beauty of her life left me speechless, feeling inept and angry, thankful and dumb.

No more Leonardo Boff. Instead, more prayers for for a tiny and oft-forgotten mother saint; more prayers for inevitable messes; for fridges full of dull, church lady-made PBJ's, prayers that each one might find a fervent angel to guide it to the hungriest mouth. That each smashed baloney-and-cheese would be chocked full of Popeye's spinach, to help its eater face the stares of incredulous children and condescending loft yuppies.

Then, this week I withdrew from blogging and books. Not out of protest or change of heart; just out of sheer busyness and the burned-out, stale-smelling wholeness of social services.

On Saturday, the new guy in the program -- let's call him Jimmy -- stole our company car and peeled out toward Oklahoma. I'd driven him in myself just a few days prior, down from the City to the Farm, where formerly homeless men -- my brothers -- now make it their sole ministry to help newcomers "take charge of their lives" and "get back on track." The trouble, as always, is defining the track. Some get centered. Some steal cars.

On the two-hour drive to the Farm, I tried to look past Jimmy's talk of "titty bars" and his bitter, perhaps even haughty judgment of Lazy People, as if they were a burden too great to bear. I hoped Jimmy wasn't racist, told him so, and was not quite comforted by his assurance that he was not "racist" but "prejudice," in a way that had nothing to do with race. I'm still not sure what he means.

Whatever else there is to say, though, it wasn't hard to see the middle-schooler in Jimmy, just wanting to get along. Wanting not to get picked last in basketball games. Wanting to get picked up by God's fat fingers and dropped down in a better world.

Just prior to our drive across Missouri, Jimmie's story included ten years on the street, one night robbing houses and stealing a car, and then eight more years in the Texas state pen. Where he was going in that stolen car I didn't ask. Maybe Oklahoma, same as now. It makes me wonder what he thought he would see.

At the gas station, on the way to the Farm, Jimmy was fresh enough out of prison to have never seen a Nutrageous bar. Maybe someone else can tell me why this sears itself so deeply in my mind. Something of Jimmy's demeanor made me think of "Red" Redding, with his stilted grocery bagging and his "So was Red" etched above the doorway in Shawshank Redemption. I should've known Jimmy wanted to go home again. I guess I missed the clues. The day before he peeled off, Jimmie told me he wanted to dedicate his life to writing letters of assurance to prisoners. He wanted, he said, to let them know that someone on the Outside knew they were there. Maybe he really just wanted to receive those letters himself.

Two hours after Jimmy left the Farm, the car ran out of gas. He left it there on the roadside, basically still intact. Then, three days later, when he was assumedly many miles away, he called to tell us which interstate, what mile marker, and that he'd left just enough gas to get it to the next station. That third part might've been wishful thinking: in the tank was nothing but fumes. Still, the guys all agreed at Thursday's Bible study that Jimmy's call was "almost noble." He wasn't the devil himself. He'd just made a dumb choice. Who hadn't? We prayed for him, and admitted we were still a little pissed he'd screwed us over.

Later in the day, the sheriff called to tell me they'd caught him, and thanked me for confirming Jimmy's middle initial and date of birth. And at that moment I felt strangely complicit on all sides -- in the theft, in the arrest.

Now the week is over, and I've hopped back into my own Stolen Car. A weekend with my beautiful wife. Books. News of the election. Idle talk of revolution. Tennis on the Nintendo Wii. And walking back out with the pups and the all-seeing moon.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Mother Theresa


Last night I followed our dogs into a moonlit backyard, feeling like Mother Theresa.

Not the mother saint. God no. Not that side of her.

I mean Mother Theresa, saint of doubt, who for fifty years stepped out under her own Calcutta moon, strained her old eyes to see God in its light, but found the light too thin. Found only rock. Craters.

"If there be God," she prayed in those times, "please forgive me."

This morning Ms. V, my thin, frail, elderly friend, and the closest person to Saint Mother Theresa I have ever known, lies unconscious in the city ICU. Yesterday, a mentally-ill homeless woman -- one of ten thousand she has helped in her life -- tried to kill her. Left her unconscious, shattered bones in her face, bleeding in her brain.

We're not sure why. We're not sure what will come of this.

"If there be God," Theresa prayed from her Dark Night, "please forgive me. When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul" (Mother Theresa: Come Be My Light, 2007).

I am no Mother Theresa -- not even in my doubt. God, seeing my weakness, spoon feeds me the smallest rare doses of Mystery.

Not so for Theresa. For fifty years she felt no divine presence in her life: not in her work; not at the Table. That's quite an exile for one of God's most faithful. Even wayward Israel was only in the desert for forty.

"How painful is this unknown pain," she continued, "I have no faith."

Yes you do, Mother. Otherwise, it wouldn't hurt.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Matthew 19:13-24, or, The Child Becomes a Young Man

My grandmother loves telling this story. The story is of a kid, maybe 5 years old. In real life the kid might have been my father.

In this story, the kid has a few toys. Not many, but probably enough.

One day the kid is taken over to a friend's house to play. This friend has toys. Rooms full of toys. Trucks and trains. Soldiers. Lincoln logs. And for as long as the boy is there, the toys are his, too.

With that thought heavy on his mind, the young king surveys his new domain. At the sight of all the toys, he is beside himself. Awestruck. Tharned.

For a long while, the young king who might've been my dad simply can't move. What toy to play with first? How can he possibly choose just one, and fall to the dire sin of neglecting so many others? Could God ever forgive him?

The odds seem fearfully low.

And so the boy that might have been my father hatches, at last, a plan. First, with the force of sheer will, he shakes himself free of the spell; turns from stone to boy again. Open armed, he sweeps across the room. He will pick them all.

He will love them all. No Lone Ranger mask will go unworn. No Howdy Doody left unventriloquized.

And yet, six steps in, his plan is not going well. His arms are hardly big enough for Howdy Doody alone, much less anybody else. And so he manages, only painfully, to gather another four or five toys. One cowboy and Indian each, he reasons, might just propagate themselves later. But what about the baseball? The bat? He snatches a tin horse by its hoof. It remains in his custody, precariously at best.

***

The boy who might have been my father starts to cry. At first a choke. Perhaps a hiccup. And then the White Silence before, at last, the levy breaks. For a long while, the kid lies victim to uncontrollable sobs, unable to say what, by now, is practically redundant anyway.

"I can't hold anymore," he moans. What's worse, he knows that the dozens -- perhaps hundreds -- of toys he's left behind aren't the final dour report on his failed responsibility. Even the horse and Howdy Doody remain unloved. At best, the're just ... held. And not a Velveteen Rabbit sort of "held". More like Abu Ghraib.

The boy, once again, is beside himself, but this time without his initial joy. He is unsure which curse to ascribe to himself: Either the toys are too big, or his arms are too small. In either case, God is cruel.

***

Even then, perhaps, the boy had an inkling of a third possibility. A third curse that, in fact, might haunt him and his progeny for years to come.

The little boy's prayer is almost proof that the thought did cross his mind.

Grandma has never mentioned it -- has always just let me read between the lines. I know he prayed it, though, right there and then. I can even see a glow from heaven cast askance upon his ruddy, tear-stained cheeks.

"Lord, it'd be a bitch to sell all these toys. Amen."

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Carnal

In this photo, featuring Jasmine's trademark "sated gargoyle" pose, the bit of white fuzz on her upper lip is not cotton.

Not in her world, anyway. It's antelope guts.

She's just enjoyed another kill. For the last week, said "kill" has generally involved eviscerating a beaver puppet that Jen found God-only-knows where. Presumably at a beaver puppet expo, but I still need to ask her: Why was she there?

I am loath to admit how often Jen and I go around picking up cotton, rawhide, and any other odds and ends we're willing to sacrifice to the Stuffed Beaver cause. Stuffed Beaver, as a puppet, is ideally made for the exercise. Into the puppet go a whole chop suey of household items. Then, presto: they're living bone and innards again, churning in the gut of a very unhappy Pinocchio.

If Pepper finds the beaver first, she tears right into its handhole with a feral passion, occasionally abandoning herself to a beaver-shaking fit. (Even over the inner din of her ecstasy, you can watch in these moments: her ears invariably perk for the sweet sound of beaver-bones breaking.)

Jasmine, meanwhile, is more methodically sadistic, like Hannibal Lectre brooding over far more legal but perhaps less movie-worthy diversions. Beyond said innards mentioned above, Jasmine likes best of all the plastic "squeak" of a squeaky toy, which, about as often as Christmas, makes its way into the toy-o-the-month. In dog-toy world, this is the archetypically visceral, throbbing-heart-in-the-hand of a B-movie villain lifeblood of re-stuffed beaverdom. One rarely sees her eyes filled with such luster as in these moments: the more pained-sounding the squeaking, the wider the eyes. In such cases, neither she nor Pepper will stop until one of them is sprawled out, bloated, burping squeaks.

All fine and good. So here's the question. If Jasmine is so happy to tear another innocent life limb from limb, and this is so seemingly a part of the God-given natural order, what the hell did some forbidden fruit have to do with introducing pain into a perfect world? Wasn't it already there by mid-morning on the Sixth Day, when God said Let there be dog and beaver, Bam Bam and Dino, lion and lamb?

Sunday, September 28, 2008

"Tested Faith"

All right, I'll admit it. Lately, late in the night, I've been sneaking out of the house. I've started a new blog.

But rest assured (I'm sure you're so distraught): I'm not ditching this one. I like the ad-hoc creative rambles I partake in here. I like the utter lack of control I have over the subject matter. I like how the posts own me. Idiot Dreams has been like a creative birthing process every few days. And like a good blog-mama, I do love my ugly babies.

But at the same time, I've been aching to dwell more on the Big Unmentionables -- politics and religion, among others -- without feeling like I'm pulling screetching U-ies thematically. You know: "Red Stew" one post, and Captain Soapbox pontificating bullshit about Wall Street the next.

Don't you think it's better this way? Please do stop by.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Red Stew

Jacob came out of his mama with Esau's ankle in his right hand, typing "red stew" into the air with his left. Try the latter. You can too.


Jen slept in late this morning, waited till I was good and hungry. Then got up and made french toast, which she knows is one of my Scooby snacks. The oil in the pan sizzled, as it does.

Jen opened up the freezer, rustling the sausage packaging with Pavlovian flair. As if she'd just thought of it, she paused her humming and brought up the DMV. "Jetta needs new tags," she said, as my stomach gnawed its lining in the den. "Uhhhn" I captively replied, sipping day-old coffee.

"Want some breakfast?" she asked. "Uhhng" said my belly, furry and red.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

White Males for Justice: League of the Naive

Yesterday at the public library, Jen joined two other speakers -- Mary Ratliff, president of Columbia NAACP, and Eduardo Crespi, executive director of Centro Latino -- for a public forum on racial equality and social justice. Rev. Heather McCain, future priest of the burgeoning Columbia Hope Church (Episcopal), was the heart and effort behind the whole affair, and a hearty round of thanks goes out to her.

http://blog.diversityjobs.com/blog/10?page=8Centro Latino
NAACP

Jen did an incredible job -- all three of the speakers did -- giving clear accounts, both personal and statistical, of racism and social inequalities right here in Columbia. Hate letters. Nazi marches. "Preferential treatment" from police (statistics show it's even worse than we'd expected). Scapegoating of Latinos for "stolen jobs" and economic crisis. (Note that hate crimes against Latinos have risen nationwide almost 35% in the last five years).

Remarkably, I was the only white male at the event, and a pretty clueless white male at that. "Progressive" as I fancy myself to be, I don't think I've ever done much more than bitch and moan about racial inequality. Why? Why the pervasive, gee-wally white male complacancy on a matter that we're so complicit in, if only for that same complacancy?

One factor, of course, is isolationism and ignorance. I say one factor, because the two terms are effectively redundant. I as a white male rarely think of myself as such. First, I don't like the implications: I don't like associating myself with the elite group I am, de facto, a part of: rich (at least by worldly standards), white, heterosexual, educated, employed, english-speaking, non-immigrant, able-bodied males, inc. Now that's a drawer-full of silver spoons.

Aside from making me feel spoiled and guilty, this sort of privilige isolates me from steady recognition of what life is like for minorities, because I simply can't empathize with what it's like to be discriminated against. I've always just been discriminated for, and so all my avenues for empathy wind up goose-chases. The best I can do is think of how I'm type-casted as a Dumb American whenever I go overseas. It's a thin thread to hang by, and not much of a headline: "American Tourist in Kilkenny Offered Pint to Sing John Denver's 'Country Road.'"

Motivational speaker material it is not. Which then makes me feel in turn false, presumptuous, paternalistic and naive for wanting to get involved in issues of racial equality at all. Yesterday, I finally realized that such a response isn't so much humility as it is outright sloth. It's time to overcome some inhibitions here and get plugged in somewhere on the matter. But this much is crystal clear: from my own position of isolignorance, the first step in becoming "active" in racial reconciliation isn't activism at all. It's self-education. Years of it.

On that note, thank God I kept my mouth shut yesterday. Frustrated with my own racial isolignorance -- and fueled further by the utter lack of other white males at the event -- I had half a mind to announce a new organization, hatched just that minute and founded on one resounding mantra: "I am priviliged, clueless, and responsible."

The phrase would be chanted at the start of every meeting and muttered with every secret handshake between members of "Rich White Able-Bodied Heterosexual Educated Protestant Non-Immigrant Males for Social and Economic Justice" -- an organization dedicated to building self-awareness of and taking responsibility for one's own privilege and complicity in an unjust social system.

Ah, how well-intentioned!

The idea is perfect. Not perfect to follow through on, of course, but perfect fodder for the back of some grown-up version of Highlight's magazine (remember Goofus and Gallant?). Can you spot the ten reasons RWABHEPNIMSEJ would be ill-conceived? The first answer's provided for you. Have fun!

1. Crappy acronymn.
2. _____________.
3. _____________.
4. _____________.
5. _____________.
6. _____________.
7. _____________.
8. _____________.
9. _____________.
10. _____________.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Simeon Stylites looks at 30


Simeon Stylites' pathology was vocational.

But it hadn't always been this way. Growing up, Simeon never worried about growing up. In fact, Simeon was convinced he never would grow up -- his certainty of this ushered in by an early vision that he'd die -- really die, irrevocably -- at 29. He wasn't clear on how it would happen, but was fully convinced it would not be in a high-speed motorcycle crash on California's coastal Highway 1, or being eaten alive by the sharks that waited in the craggy waters below.

These sorts of visions, after all, would just have been flights of fancy -- the drama too heightened to be real life. If these had been Simeon's visions, they would have been proof enough that his imagination had simply gotten the best of him; they would have cast a suspicious pall, in fact, over his death-at-29 prognostication altogether. In contrast, that Simeon's own death-visions were always blurred, vague, but invariably mundane for all that -- a car accident, perhaps, or a surprisingly early case of testicular cancer -- reinforced, at least to him, that he was in fact going to die within the decade.

And so, Simeon Stylites never did bother making plans for what he'd "do" someday. Why come up with some grand orchestration for a life that would end so soon, so tragically? Simeon reasoned instead that time would be better spent smoking marijuana, writing music on crumpled napkins, watching un-slept sunrises. As far as that went, his early 20s seemed so far to prove him right.

But by his late 20s, the whole game had changed. The visions of a premature death had almost entirely been replaced by a prophecy more daunting still: a 30-, 40-, even 50-year wilderness opened up ahead of him, just past the guard rail that had always kept him safely on the younger side of 29.

"Crap," said Simeon Stylites. And at that, he started walking into the expanse, beginning his frenetic search for vocation.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Noah Prayer


Ike passed over our house last night, living and oblivious, Texas-sized. Its 800-mile slug trail, once a daunting wall of water at the coast, had since tapered down to ankle deep.

Around midnight, I took off my shoes and stepped out into our backyard, a modern Noah-figure with the sweet calm of deflected responsibility. God never told me to build no ark; if he did I wasn't listening.

I'd gone outside with lesser objectives -- namely, to investigate one particular drip, pounding just outside our back porch door. Most drips are quaint; the recognize their place as one among billions. This one was clearly malevolent.

Sure enough, where the porch overhang meets the compound asbestos, a steady trickle of water was weaseling through; already the wood over our doorway is rotting. I should've taken a picture of the giant wolf spider, holding its ground on the pucker-painted rot, or the spider-shadow my flashlight made on the door.

After wading around to check out all the more suspect gutters (they were holding up well, I'm thankful to say), I almost stepped on a garter snake who, I assume, had gotten the memo on the Ash Street Ark. Racing by my feet, he zipped up onto our porch, not caring anymore that I was a giant.

Suddenly I could feel the suffocation. Suddenly I realized what Ike had really left behind: an 800-mile trail of desperately drowning ground-dwellers: snakes and worms and groundhogs, bat-blind moles, all of whom were trying to keep their heads above water while Jen and I watched Saturday Night Live lay deliciously into Sarah Palin's snarkiness.

But again, I ain't no Noah, and I ain't no angel host. Looking back now, I wish I'd done differently. I picked up the snake and brought him inside, but more to freak Jen out than to offer asylum to a legless refugee. After getting the desired response from Jen, I dutifully brought the snake back outside. Then, istead of leaving him on the porch like I should have, I tossed him back out into the ankle-deep rain, where he curled up for a moment and then shot off toward other arks.

God forgave Noah. God forgive me.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Peace?

At today's peace rally downtown, we got a little visit from Republican counter-protesters.

Actually, a pretty big visit -- they easily outnumbered us: flag-waving, slogan-chanting, McCain-adoring Republicans.

Which struck me as a little funny. Counter-protesting? It's not like we were holding Obama signs -- that would be protesting apples to apples. Instead, what we got boiled down to this:

Peace! (No, McCain!)

Peace! (No, McCain!)

This would hardly seem to help their cause... right? But then, gauging from their reasonable volume of supportive horn-honks and relatively low MFF (middle finger factor) from passing drivers, maybe I'm just out of touch.

Or maybe I'm just mad. Emboldened by pretty good conversations with a couple of them, I tried at one point to extend a friendly gesture to another whole gaggle of them on the northwest corner.

Getting all mushy and aisle-crossed inside, I walked up to introduce myself. "Hi," I said. One responded with this witty retort (retort to what, I don't know): "Do you even wear deodorant?"

I probably wouldn't have cussed her out if ...

a couple of weeks ago, some old bastard hadn't driven by and yelled "Get a bath!" at Ben, a mentally ill, long-bearded member of our little Wednesday community. But he did.

And it wouldn't have struck quite such a nerve if Ben wasn't within earshot this time, some six feet away. But he was.

Yes, my speech was ... well ... unfiltered. Yes, I was holding a peace sign. Yes, I see the irony.
Yes, I'd do it again.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Turf War

All this reel-mowing lately (you know, that whole one time) has inspired me to share a recent Elizabeth Kolbert article from the New Yorker.

The article, masquerading as a mere book review, is hardly that. And even to say it touches on the origin, (ab)use, and future of the American lawn is vastly inadequate. I'll just let you see for yourself.

Give it a read, and get out the swingblade. Or better yet, just watch your backyard jungle grow.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Satisfaction is a Freedom Lawn

Lately, our old reel mower has gotten about as much attention as our garden.

Which isn't much. See here the garden in question: above, a roving squash plant gasps for breath in a merciless sea of seeding grass ("whirl up, weeds!" as the Modernists would say)....

And yet I can't conceal my pride. Yesterday, I finally gave the old reel mower (sickle mower, push mower) the attention it was due, and over a span of two or three hours, mowed our entire 12,000 sq.ft. backyard.

It felt good. No gas, no fossil fuels. Just time, exertion, and swearing, in more or less equal parts.

I think my trouble has always been with this recipe. When attempting to reel-mow our front lawn, the ratio was usually closer to 1:1:3 or 1:1:4. And as one might expect, this has been a sure-fire way to flood my own engine:

Grip the handle. Curse. Gather inner strength. Curse. Pause.

At last, in an erratic series of lunges at grass, shove the mower for all it's worth, enduring with each swipe an uncanny sensation that the grass is really hair being yanked from the head of a friendly green giant.


Curse again, this time at the folly of bringing suffering into the world. Regroup; find the Zen within. Curse again.
Yesterday, though, I figured it out. I'd always been fighting intertia before. To use the reel-mower right, I needed momentum, and a steady flow of it. Putting the handle of the mower just below the beltline, like a jackhammer, I found that I could literally run across the yard with the mower. Meanwhile, the mower's own resistance propelled me upward a bit, giving the sensation that I was jaunting up to a high-jump bar or, perhaps more accurately, like I was prancing across the stage of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker ballet.

I'm sure that's what my neighbors thought: There goes that prancing lefty, they'd say. Up to his eco-shenanigans again.

Meanwhile, I was trying on different imagery: that of a football player in training, pushing a practice dummy across the field. Hunh!

Try though I might, though, I couldn't shake the tune of that damned Nutcracker's Suite. I made a point not to turn around, lest I see sparkly dust in my wake.

In the end, though, it was all worthwhile. To survey one's own hard-won handiwork, and actually see a whole lawn full of churned grass and mow-hawks -- a lawn that looks for for your life like a disgruntled teenager made a half-assed attempt at cutting it with hedge-trimming shears, and to know, yes, I did this, and have the blisters to prove it...? Ah.

There is little sweeter in life.

Friday, August 29, 2008

pear tree gazers

Jasmine, our black lab, is a dedicated tree-gazer.

I'd say squirrel-gazer, but the squirrel seems optional; at best, he's the catalyst that gets the whole process going. In this case, he (the squirrel) had long since lunged across our fence into the neighbor's yard, airborne, barking epithets.

Pepper, the beagle, isn't sold on the tree-watching enterprise. Here, above, she's clearly faking.

But never mind that Pepper's looking at the sky. Her chin is up, and that's what's important; she's got good form.

"Anyway, the Big Dog is stupid," Pepper thinks, not meaning to hurt Jasmine's feelings, but unconcerned if she does.

Truth is, Jasmine doesn't care what Pepper thinks. There is nothing in the world right now but Jasmine, the tree, and one barking, bastard squirrel. Eventually he will return.

Maybe this time, drunk and buttered.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Stick Bug

If God hadn't wired my mandibles shut
I would devour you.

It was His little joke
to harness within me
a teeming pond of crocodiles.
It was yours to think
you could amble around me
like a tired dad at Disneyworld.

I am Shiva in your window.


Go back inside to your starving pups and supper.
Crank the cans,
Cut in the kibble.

Think of me.

In this slowest waltz
We are partners, you and I,
Clasping hands with our enemy reflections.
Yet, what you find so painfully still,
I, knowing time, call dance.
Here between us in the glass,
Stars wriggle like embryos;
Our touch is the birthplace
of constellations.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Newsweek Goes "Onion"

In the check-out aisle today, my eyes scanned over the spinning sucker-pops and tabloids until they landed, at last, on the most recent Newsweek.

I was intrigued. In giant words on its cover, the magazine promised to address a rarely-covered topic -- Namely: "What Bush Got Right."

I am such a rube.... They almost had me!

In fact, it wasn't till I saw that it was double issue that I realized they were pulling my leg.

Newsweek. Hooligans!

Monday, August 25, 2008












Less carnal and gauche than the feathery quill,
far flung from the weakness that pencils entail,
absolved of the typewriter's clacking and pomp,
no smack of the privilege that laptops instill.
Less pre-teen than texting while trying to jog
and lord knows, of far nobler blood than the blog

Sunday, August 24, 2008

"The Right Thing to Do"

Sojourners MagazineSojourners Magazine certainly had a "time capsule" feel this month. I chuckled to see John Edwards in a pressed white shirt.

Inside, his interview is - one might say prophetically - entitled, "The Right Thing to Do." How ironic. That caiaphasian phrase was likely chugging through the printing press, ten thousand at a time, just as Edwards was first telling Nightline about his "mistake," and making grating qualifying statements like: "First of all it happened during a period after she was in remission ..."

When Edwards first went public, I was surprised at my own anger. I was taking this all too personally, as if the man had cheated on me.

He didn't. And frankly, even if he did, I wouldn't be in any place to throw the first stone. Over the last couple of weeks, I've realized that my indignation is less righteous than pragmatic. I am hurt, in a low-grade, novacained sort of way, that yet another person I looked up to has betrayed this moral weakness and cause such hurt to his wife and family.

But that's not my battle. Instead, more than anything, I'm just bothered that Edwards broke faith with what he called his "life vocation" -- ending poverty in America. His career is shot, and he willingly took that risk. Now the anti-poverty movement will have to regroup from the blow.

"I think it's entirely possible [to put poverty on the national agenda]," Edwards tells Jim Wallace. "I think what's missing is sustained leadership on this issue."

I guess, for now, we'll just have to keep looking.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Meeting Moses

In college I experimented with fasting. Once or twice a month, that is, I would forgo all apple juice and Peanut Butter Captain Crunch, all beer and marijuana, and even the cafeteria's chicken-fried steak. Next steps: fill up a big jug of water, unplug the phone, and pull up a chair at the dorm room window. And then there I'd sit for two or three days, waiting for winged proverbs to smack against the glass.

Junior year was the big one -- the Seven Day fast. I guess over time I had just become inured with the two- or three-day stints: the first day's food withdrawals, the second day's occasional, and always fleeting, awakenings. I thought for sure that something more drastic - to the tune of a week - would put me clean out into the Desert. I liked the thought of that.

The fast began and ended with a touch of religiosity -- respectively, a last meal at the China Buffet, and the slow, ceremonious eating of a fatted Golden Delicious, on which I'd written a long and since-forgotten poem. But between these vaguely religious bookends, there was only a faint smear of spirituality about the whole thing. At my least gracious, I think back on myself then as a dime-a-dozen consumer of epiphany. The Seven Days could just as easily have been a stack of DVDs.

***

To make my entertainment edgier, I meditated on the Desert. But first, to get there, I had to wander, backwards as it were, across long stretches of Promised Land. On day five, I finally made it back to the Jordan. I imagined myself the anti-Moses.

As I neared the river, I gradually made out the silhouette of a man on the other side. Then, at once, everything within me sank: my stomach, my irreverence, my 20-year-old suburban hubris.

It was Moses, still barred from crossing my way. I slowly edged up on the Promised-side of the muddy banks. I could see him well now.

"It's beautiful," said Moses, staring out over the expanse of oak groves and honeycomb behind me.


"It's okay," I conceded. "But honestly, it's rockier than it looks. And then there are the Amonites and Canaanites. Not to mention the strip malls."

"The who?" asked Moses.

"Nothing," I replied. I immediately regretted having brought it up.

I looked across the Jordan myself, and suddenly felt invigorated and emotional, like Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration.

"It is good for us to be here... Do you think He'd mind if I swam out your way?"

Visibly annoyed now, Moses turned and stared across the plains of Moab.

"The desert's not for tourists," he said at last.

At that, I was instantly back in my apartment, eyeing the refrigerator door. I was dreaming of gorging on milk and honey with the other Jebusites.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Mk. 9:24

I won't say I'm experiencing a "dark night of the soul." I haven't by any means earned that right.

"Dark nights" I'll leave to those who can face them: folks like Mother Theresa or Saint John of the Cross, who continually prayed to and yearned for God. They did so even when -- for decades, in Mother Theresa's case -- they felt no closeness to God in their prayers, and continually ached for God in his absence.

What I'm going through now is something less: an overnight flight delay of the soul.

In an airport lit up like it's noon, my own midnight is spent trying to sleep in a chair that's cleverly designed to prevent it.

Occasionally I get up and pace the terminals; I lug around my tambourine and giant golden harp. Logistically, I know they won't fit in the overhead compartment. What the hell was I thinking? I quietly put the thought out of my mind.

The thought comes back. I rest my hope on the First Class closet, where a few times they've let me stow my guitar.

At 4 a.m. I am downright pissed to find the five foolish bridesmaids, huddled together and dozing off (par for the course) on a bench by the women's bathroom. I see that every one of them has her oil lamp lingering somewhere nearby. This frustrates me: they've got lamps for God's sake -- IEDs if I ever saw them -- while I can't even get through with a six-ounce tube of Colgate.

I suppose I should just let these little injustices slide, and be thankful the six of us got tickets at all.


It's funny: in ways I am a firmer believer now than I've ever been. I unswervingly believe .... something, even something substantial, about God's promise to humanity made through Christ. I believe in God's fervent preference for the poor, the orphan, the widow, and in the responsibility that entails for a privileged kid like me.

I believe that God loves us. It's the one truth I really left seminary with. And that's almost always enough.

But sometimes I'm not sure "doubt" is even the word for what I feel. I find myself somewhere out past Thomas, if as yet shy of Judas.

I hide this from many -- though not all -- of my co-workers and clients. They are steeped in another language, a different language, which they share with me at least a little bit each day. "Holy Spirit-filled." "Just keep praising." "God will work a miracle." "Bathe it in prayer." They worry for the salvation of souls.

Their language feels like a litmus test, which, at least secretly, I continue to fail.

I've learned not to use those terms myself. I say "the Lord" and "Holy Spirit" with the sincerity of a flight attendant, welcoming another hundred people on the plane.

Sometimes, though rarely, the attendant even means "hello." He believes "hello."

Lord, help him with his unbelief.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Texas
I have never envisioned the word "Texas" anywhere near so much lush and green. Nor have I ever considered "Texan" any forest thick enough to warrant a trail.

And don't bother convincing me otherwise. It's not like mere evidence is going to change my mind. I still can't think "Texas" and "lake" in the same synapse, even after spending an entire weekend in Caddo Lake State Park. Try thought I might, it's like rubbing my head and patting my belly. The signals cross.

The same goes for Spanish moss. Spanish moss I've consigned to Mississippi, or maybe the fat-mustached stretches of southern Alabama. And green? I'd be more prepared to see green in Antarctica. At least iceberg-white is closer on the color wheel than the Texan orange I've grown up expecting. Texas should be lizard-toned. At its lushest, the color of Carolina clay. Not this.

Now, back in Missouri, my brain spins circles trying to recalculate the once simple formula, "Texas." The best it can do tonight, I observe, is to slice Texas like an earthworm into three wriggling parts.

First, Old Texas is still the same as it always was: Ford Country pick-ups and ass-kickings; dust and God and Republicans.

Austin Texas, second, is still a mirage -- an as-yet hearsay bubble of progressive folk musicians and environmental monks.

Finally, there's Caddo Lake: the Texas of good-natured Rice family reunions, cypress knees (which, if up to me, would be called "cypress snorkels"), and the dawning recognition -- thanks to a couple of Jen's social work books -- of the responsibility that comes with being a White, heterosexual, married, employed, educated, able-bodied, and utterly oblivious Protestant male. It's the Texas of watching Jen's grandmother cry over a lost husband, daughter, daughter-in-law. The Texas that can somehow hold a Prius on one end and a nature-loving Episcopalian uncle on the other. Cypress Texas. Green Texas.

Poppycock. I won't believe it.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Glum

_____Portrait of the Artist as a Sullen Dweeb_____

Our bodies know it, if we don't. For any given life, we only have so many real smiles for the camera. After that, the smiles crack; that's where the empty gets in. Better, then, to ration ourselves. Pace ourselves. Be resourceful. Throw some plastic smiles in there. Filler smiles. Spread the good ones out a little.

When we're young, the supply of joy looks endless. We gawk at the rows of shimmering 2-liters, brimming up and vacuum-sealed.

And so we live as if there's not any ration; as if the happy will never run out. The first time we shake a rattle or pass gas, we wide-eyed babies blow a bottle at a time. And why not? It bubbles up like oil. Spurts like a broken pipe.

But God help a smiley baby. I look at them with such agitation. I feel like the Jabberwocky for even wanting just one less smile, just a little more colic. But is it a crime to wish we could still be happy in old age? What if the smile-fields run out by 2030? What will we say to our grandchildren then? Are we humans actually defined by our inability to ration joy?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Now I Spend my Days

Now I spend my days
Counting bric-a-brac in alleyways,
The air too thin in thoroughfares
To buoy drifting eyes.

I seek out where witch hazel lays
Its blossoms softly under eves;
I seek them out among the leaves
Of pages flung from windowsills -
Of harlots riding carousels,
Of children clanging distant bells -
But all the stories they would tell
Before my senses have their fill,
Rise up with the sacred smells
And back in through their windowsills.

Now I spend my days
Counting bric-a-brac in alleyways,
The air too thin in thoroughfares
To buoy drifting eyes.

Monday, August 11, 2008

For We Shall Not Repeat the Evil

August 9, 1945 | Columbia, Missouri. Three days after President Truman authorized the detonation of "Little Boy" over Kansas City, Allied forces dropped a second nuclear bomb, "Fat Man", in Columbia, 125 miles to the east. Above, the Fat Man mushroom cloud is shown rising some eleven miles (60,000 feet) above its hypocenter (ground zero) in central Missouri.

Having moved to Columbia just over a year ago myself, this morning I felt compelled to visit the ground zero memorial, which lies a mile or so southwest of the new city center. Armed with a camera and half cup of coffee in an old Nalgene bottle, I hopped on my bike and headed down the MKT trail to the memorial. It was far too pretty a day for the occasion. The cicadas were going haywire.

Above: At the monument marking the hypocenter (ground zero) of the A-bomb's detonation over Columbia, Aug 9, 1945. The inscription reads, "Let the Souls Here Rest in Peace, For We Shall Not Repeat the Evil"
The day of the bomb was equally nice, or so I've been told by local survivors (hibakusha, they call themselves, woodenly translated "people touched by the blast"). One woman, a neighbor of mine, was a schoolgirl at the time. She says she clearly the sound of the plane flying overhead and her friend shouting, "It's a B-29!" Spotting the plane, she says she was close enough to see something bright near the cargo bay, like a mirror reflecting the sun. She assumes this was either "Fat Man" itself, or else the release apparatus from underneath the plane. A long moment later, she remembers the roar as if a train were rolling over her.

She woke up with most of her clothes burned away; the darker material -- her shirt, for instance -- were completely incinerated, having absorbed more energy from the blast. Her lighter-toned pants were singed, but remained. Her skin hung from her arms. Her classmates and teachers were gone.

Columbia, 1945

By mid-century, Columbia had grown into a thriving industrial and cultural center. Its steel manufacturing capacity was destined, many thought, to soon rival Pittsburgh, and its business sector was booming. At the time of the blast, Columbia boasted a population between 225,000 and 240,000 (estimates taken by adding 4 percent per annum to those registered in the 1940 census).
Columbia, Missouri: Before and After the Bomb

In May of 1945, a so-called "Target Committee" at Los Alamos had included Columbia on a shortlist along with Springfield, Yokohama, Kyoto and Hiroshima. The Committee, led by J. Robert Oppenheimer, looked for the following characteristics:
1) Size -- specifically, an urban center at least 3 miles in diameter, so that if Fat Man missed its target, it would still fall on a dense population.
2) Psychological effect (destroying not only life and infrastructure, but morale), and
3) Strategic value (i.e., impeding Missouri from sustaining itself materially, militarily, agriculturally, and so on).
It is widely believed that according to all three criteria, Kyoto won hands down over Columbia. Even through late July, Kyoto was still the Committee's likely choice. All that reportedly spared the city, as Edwin O. Reischauer attests in his memoirs, was the emotional response of then Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson, who had honeymooned with his wife in Kyoto decades prior, and had fostered a deep admiration for the city.

Apparently, none of the military brass had honeymooned in Columbia. 40,000 of its citizens died within hours of Fat Man's detonation. Three days prior in Kansas City, "Little Boy" -- another implosion-type, plutonium-239 nuke -- had instantly taken the lives of 70,000 more. Bye the end of 1945, both bombs had earned a death toll well over 220,000, as others lost their battles with injuries, burns, and lingering radiation.

Remembering

On Saturday, a hundred or so hibashuka gathered at Stevens Lake to remember those that died, and to echo the refrain, "Let the souls here rest in peace, for we shall not repeat the evil."

Returning exhausted from an all-day workshop in New Bloomfield, I almost didn't make it to the memorial service. I'm glad I caught my second wind. Better late than never, I joined other hibashukas for the latter half. We all limped up to the pavilion, dragging our cancers and rags along, and there, silver-haired beatniks in rocking lawnchairs joined the well-meaning yuppie, the reflective transvestite, the burqa'd young mother, the earth-toned activist.

Under the pavilion, in the dark, we sang together before watching our paper lanterns float out across Stevens Lake. Two tiny women played guitar. The rest of us sang:
Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the flowers gone?
Girls have picked them every one
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?

Where have all the young girls gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the young girls gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the young girls gone?
Taken husbands every one
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?

Where have all the young men gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the young men gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the young men gone?
Gone for soldiers every one
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?

Where have all the soldiers gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Gone to graveyards every one
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?

Where have all the graveyards gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the graveyards gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the graveyards gone?
Covered with flowers every one
When will we ever learn?
When will we ever learn?

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Ode to a Second Belgian Beer

Oh, the palpable earnestness! Oh, the saccharine fervor of untapped expression!

Oh, the unspoken fear that the pearl in the clench-jawed clam has been, after all this prying, just the orphaned relic of a J.C. Penny necklace, fated to bounce forever on a scratched linoleum floor, in the display room of Bob's Furniture Outlet on the business loop just north of Dante’s rings.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Sicko

Yesterday at Bill's, the neighborhood mom & pop gas station near the homeless center where I work, I stepped out of our beat-up Camry with what I'd like to think was '70s flair. Taking out a handkerchief, I blew my nose -- but cool. Marley, my companion, leaned against the passenger door, waiting while I pumped the gas.

I thought I knew why we were getting the unwelcoming stares.

Marley has a bit of a scowl. It's not that he's mean -- in fact, he's as kind and gentle as they come. It's just that Marley "hears" by reading lips, and so he tends to concentrate deeply on the faces of those around him. Granted, it looks a bit like Harvey's glaring. Like he hates you, at least a little.

He's not, and he doesn't. Ask him and he'd gladly bake you a pie. But with this misinterpreted scowl, a couple of missing teeth, arms covered in skulls and whatnots and a tattooed tear falling from his eye, Marley "ain't from around here" in small town Missouri.

Thus, the stares. Or so I thought. Meanwhile, I tried to distract myself by pumping gas like (I assumed) folks did in the '70s. You know. Cool.

From across the car, Marley's hissed whisper snapped me out of my reverie. "Nate -- the mask!"

In the rural Midwest, Marley was right to be concerned. Meth labs are rampant in these parts, and with a dust mask propped on my head like a tiara and a look on my face like I hadn't slept in weeks, I'd just turned myself into local Suspect #1. We were lucky nobody could see the rubber gloves, gram scale, household cleaners or mason jar "beakers" on a table back at the ranch.

You know. Cool.

Why the beat-up look? This one's easy: I was a few days into one of my signature colds, which left me the eerie sensation that someone had (yet again) inserted a baseball squarely behind my nose.

But why the mask? The beakers? The methanol and Red Devil Lye?

Marley, Jamaal and I were just beginning the wonderful journey of discovery that is Making Your Own Biodiesel. The person who usually teaches our eight-hour biodiesel workshop just skipped town to marry an old ex-girlfriend, leaving the rest of us in the lurch. Now, tomorrow, I and the new trainees will be teaching the class ourselves. No time like the present to make our first batch.

Back to the books...

Monday, August 4, 2008

Blank New World

In Terrence Malick's latest film, The New World, there is a scene in which Pocahontas -- or at this point we should say, simply, she -- sheds the garb of her people, and first tries on "civilized" clothes. Malick captures the awkwardness, the displacement, with immaculate grace. The shoes pinch. The heels wobble.

She isn't Pocahontas anymore. She's not yet Rebecca.

I understand. She's on a plane.

30,000 feet up, she dutifully thumbs through a United Airlines magazine. The pages are blank. She puts it down. She stares out the window at a motionless wing. A single red light blinks. For a moment everything has stopped: the plane, time itself -- everything but that light.

Even the light has little to say into the darkening stratosphere. "I am blinking. I am a light."

A row up, the flight attendant glances the aisle seat with his cart. Pocahontas asks for a tomato juice, then stares out again. For a moment, visions of the unseen New World fill the emptiness, projected in the plane window, dimly. Looking down again, she stares into her plastic cup. She prays to the ice, "Don't melt."

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Urban Nature: Stalking the Wild Red Fiddle

(click image for larger view)
azolla rutilus fiddlis caput capitus: the crimson fiddlehead fern
(common name: "red fiddle")


Do an image search on the common fiddlehead fern, and you'll see that half the photos taken are not of these ferns in the prime of their life, sunlit against the backdrop of some pristine Mainer forest. No, for whatever dark and macabre reason, people tend to shoot the fiddleheads as they face their green and gristly deaths: ghastly shots of their furled "scrolls" (the "fiddle heads" themeselves), already unceremoniously de-ferned, de-frocked and de-fiddled, post picked, post butchered, and now piled by the hundreds in the produce aisle or in some crackling New England skillet.

As rural legend goes, the red fiddle (this one, above, photographed today in the northwest corner of our yard) once thrived in this area, before midwestern skillets made similar assaults and practically did away with the now-endangered "azolla rutilus".

The idea of a former golden age of the Great Red Fiddle is probably not all hocus-pocus. Surviving records of pre-colonial America include numerous accounts of what many believe -- and I among them -- could only be the red fiddle fern. When, for example, the first settlers made their way through central Missouri, they often spoke of "curled, crymson flaires" that peppered the fields and prairies from early spring to late August.

It could only be a matter of time before someone tried to eat them. "Come, let's cook the red thynges, with garlicke and the taile of badger!" A delicatessen was born, and the fate of the red fiddle was all but sealed.

But, at last, what is truly remarkable about the red fiddle fern is not its near extinction, but the fact that it has survived at all. The ingeuity of a brainless thing can only bespeak a Creator: the surviving red fiddle fern lives on today because the "crymson flaire" no longer means "lunch" to the grazing Midwesterner. Today, it means stand clear: the modern red fiddle has a chemical component remarkably similar to "Frontline" flea and tick repellant. Extremely poisonous.

Do not eat.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Urban Nature: That Rarest Bird

the elusive pie-eyed bluefarb
(click image for larger view)


This morning, not twenty feet from the kitchen window, a pie-eyed bluefarb (PEB) sat preening in our pear tree.

Why it picked our yard, I can't be sure. In a fair world, a just world, a visitation like this would only fall upon the a lifelong ornithologist with a passion for this bird, not some mid-town schmuck like me, whose bird-savviness ends with "robin" and "hawk," and who only happens to know anything about the PEB vicariously, through snips and scraps of someone else's bird-lore.

Maybe the rumor's true that the PEB is part sprite, and fond of irony. Any rate, this time the irony was in my favor, so I don't plan to raise a stink about it.

And I sure won't complain that I manged to come away with the photo above. Imperfect as this shot certainly is, I'm happy with it. Having just looked online, it is thrilling -- if perhaps a little presumptuous -- to think this might indeed be the clearest image of the pie-eyed bluefarb in existence. At any rate, nothing much has come up after several Google queries.

This much, though, is sure: while regrettably I wasn't able to get in any closer, or pull off a completely unobstructed shot (damn that leaf!) , it's clear that this is, indeed, the Bird Itself. Nothing else comes close to that remarkable shade of indigo, that seemingly translucent sheen. I was able to snap the shutter only once more before the bluefarb was gone, and frankly it's a terrible shot -- just a tiny blur of blue glass as that mysterious bird, startled by my intrusion, took wing and shot out eastbound across our neighbor's garden.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


Nature Photography


Human Nature Photography

Where there's a trail, there's always a Pringles can.

Then, the perfunctory gripe.

To that extent, yesterday was no exception.

And yet, yesterday, as in recent years, something of the fervor was gone. Or, more to the point, my griping lacked the drama it once had. As a teen and early tween, I was ready to respond at hair-trigger speed whenever the beast encroached upon beauty.

Simply put, lately the hell is gone. I'm novacained.

Walking past a whole nest of garbage at the trail head yesterday, I felt no theatric indignation at all. Instead, there was only a thin, dull ache, and a mental note to self that yet another processed corn product has proclaimed its flavors "Extreme."

Environmentalist Bill McKibbon has written about this dull ache before -- though to McKibbon's credit, his own is clearly sharper, deeper, and more ubiquitous than mine. To illustrate this ache, he recounts the experience that most of us have had at one time or another. Remember: you sat on a mountainside; everywhere you turned, you saw a vista unmarred by human hands; above, a hawk idled; the only sound was wind and stillness.

Wind, stillness. And the distant grumble of a chainsaw, somewhere down the valley.

Ache.

However perfect and otherwise "pure" this mountainside moment may have been, however far our minds ached to drift across an untouched landscape beyond (that is, prior to) the curse of human ingenuity, there is always that faint, chuggering whine from down the valley. For McKibbon, there's hardly a place left on earth where we can escape that sound. Now that the Wise Species has marred even our climate, the Arctics themselves are dwindling safe-havens from the sound of ourselves.

Put a Pringles can up to your ear like a conch. Can you hear the motors droning?


Sunday, July 27, 2008

My own Ring of Mordor, Mama, you are mine. How I ache to lick your teeth, your gums, the insides of your nostrils! Though you tease me in our lover's game, feigning rapt attention to the noisy picturebox, my little fawn, even now you must confess it: your restraint is overtaxed, and like my bladder at four a.m., you will soon hold back no longer. Kiss me. How I love your captivating breath,

your slender, snack-dispensing fingers, your wails of protest when the Competition oafishly demotes me to the foot of your bed. Someday he and the Big Black Dog will leave us at last, and then I will have you; yea, I will rest upon your bosoms like the Beloved Disciple of Christ.